Attacked by Amazon forest’s largest venomous snake, a man fights to survive

RIO DE JANEIRO — Few creatures are more feared in the Amazon forest than the surucucu-pico-de-jaca. Considered the largest venomous snake in the Americas — and the world’s longest viper — the South American bushmaster injects up to 500 milligrams of venom into its victims, who develop severe pain, nausea, shock and, in extreme cases, perish in less than an hour.

“The most dreaded of all the South America serpents,” British naturalist Catherine C. Hopley once called its genus.

But when one of them sank its fangs into Cícero José de Oliveira, 43, late last month, at first he didn’t feel any pain. Just a sharp, penetrating “needling” in the back of his left calf — little to betray the extreme danger in which he now found himself, and the pitched battle to survive that lay ahead. In a story that has grabbed headlines all over Brazil, the woodsman would be forced to spend four days without medical care in the forest, writhing atop a plastic sheet, until the arrival of a rescue team — and anti-venom.

A farmworker, Oliveira had been sent deep into the forest in Amazonas state alongside two others to take measurements of a property’s limits 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 their provisions were depleted. The only thing left to do that Thursday was begin the long walk back to civilization.

That was when, along the margins of the Juma River, a bushmaster snapped into view.

“I was brutally surprised,” Oliveira told The Washington Post, in his first extensive interview on the matter. He sat down, stunned: “I was just looking at my leg, at all of this blood coming out.”

The father of three daughters only fully appreciated the danger he was in, he said, when one of his two companions told him what had bit him: the feared surucucu-pico-de-jaca. He knew his life — or what remained of it — would be different from that moment forward.

“We’re far from home,” one of his colleagues warned. “We have to get going now.”

Oliveira made it only a kilometer before collapsing, his leg swelling grotesquely. 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 — disappearing into the forest.

Oliveira had nothing more to eat than a bit of mandioca flour.

When word of his peril reached authorities, the Brazilian environmental agency Ibama alerted two rescuers — men of a “certain ruggedness,” their commander said. They knew the mission they were embarking on was risky. 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 one of the responders, Jeffite Cordeiro Ambrósio. “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 already 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 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, who went searching for him. Along with four others, they found Oliveira marooned in the forest. But none of them had anti-venom, so they began carrying the wounded man — more than 6 miles through the densest of jungle, in what he 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,’ ” rescuer Ambrósio said. “He said: ‘nine.’ ”

They administered the anti-venom. Oliveira lay down on the floor. He cried.

“Imagine that you’re 10 miles from anything in the middle 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 now recovering.

“And that’s my story,” he said.

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