Attacked by Amazon’s largest venomous snake, man survives days in jungle
The Washington Post November 8, 2023
RIO DE JANEIRO — Few creatures in the Amazon rainforest are more feared than the surucucu-pico-de-jaca - the deadly South American bushmaster. The world longest viper, and the largest venomous snake in the Americas, it can inject 500 milligrams of venom into its victims, causing severe pain, nausea, shock and, in extreme cases, a quick death.
“The most dreaded of all the South America serpents,” was how its genus was described in a book by British naturalist Catherine C. Hopley.
But when one sank its fangs into Cícero José de Oliveira, 43, late last month, he didn’t feel any pain. Just a sharp, penetrating “needling” in the back of his left calf — little to betray the extreme danger into which he was now cast, or the pitched battle to survive that lay ahead.
In a story that has grabbed headlines all over Brazil, he would spend four more days in the forest, writhing atop a plastic sheet, with no treatment until the arrival of a rescue team — and anti-venom.
Oliveira had been sent deep into the forest in Amazonas state with two others to measure a property along the Juma River, more than 20 miles by foot from the nearest town. It was the last day of the five-day job. Most of the small team’s provisions were depleted. All that remained to do that Thursday was begin the long walk back to civilization.
That was when, along the margins of the Juma, the bushmaster snapped into view.
The South American bushmaster makes no sound before it strikes. Hence its Latin name: Lachesis muta.
“I was brutally surprised,” Oliveira told The Washington Post in his first extensive interview on the matter. He sat on the forest floor, stunned. “I was just looking at my leg, at all of this blood coming out.”
A father of three daughters, he said he didn’t fully appreciated the peril he was in until one of his companions told him what had bit him. He knew his life — or what remained of it — would be different from that moment forward.
“We’re far from home,” one of his companions warned. “We have to get going now.”
His leg swelling grotesquely, Oliveira made it only a kilometer before collapsing. It was a pain unlike any he’d felt before. Seeing he could go no further, one of the men he was with, an Indigenous woodsman, set out in search of help — and disappeared into the forest.
Oliveira had nothing more to eat than a bit of mandioca flour.
When word of his predicament reached authorities, the federal environmental agency Ibama alerted two rescuers — men of a “certain ruggedness,” their commander said. The mission would be risky for them, too. Oliveira was in an area so remote they couldn’t even access it by helicopter. They’d have to head out on foot.
“Before I left base, I did a search on the internet about this snake,” said Jeffite Cordeiro Ambrósio, one of the responders. “We knew we were dealing with a poisonous animal whose bite causes extreme pain.”
He told his teammates: Stay calm.
“If we keep a cool head, everything will turn out well,” he said.
Deep in the forest, Oliveira was trying to do the same. Two days had passed. What little food he had was soon gone. The only thing left to eat was heart of palm collected from nearby palm trees. Then, the water ran out, too. Oliveira, still accompanied by his other companion, refused to allow himself to think that this was the end.
“It never passed once in my head that I was going to die,” he said.
The Indigenous woodman had sent his coordinates to Oliveira’s brother. Ananias Oliveira Sodré gathered four friends and went searching for him. They found Oliveira marooned in the forest, but none of them had anti-venom. So they began carrying the wounded man — more than six miles through the densest of jungle — in what Oliveira called a “race against time.”
For two days, the men walked. Oliveira was getting weaker. They were still too far from help. The nearest hospital was 10 miles away. Oliveira didn’t know how much longer he’d last.
That was when the Ibama rescue team found them.
“I asked him, ‘On a scale of zero to 10, what is the intensity of the pain,’” Ambrósio said. “He said nine.”
They administered the anti-venom. Oliveira lay on the floor. He cried.
“Imagine that you’re 10 miles from anything in the middle of the forest and then, out of nowhere, you’re drinking cold water and eating bread and salami,” he said. “I wept with happiness.”
The rescuers placed him on a hammock, hefted him aloft, then walked 10 miles out of the forest — back to safety, and to a hospital in his hometown of Careiro, where he’s recovering.
Now comes the next battle: physical therapy so he can walk again without pain.
“And that’s my story,” he said. “This was a miracle in my life, direct from our good God.”