African Gaboon viper

WHAT: One of the largest vipers in the world. Can grow to 6 feet and 25 pounds. Venom glands are enormous; bites produce more venom than any other snake.

WHERE: Found in rainforest wetlands from Central to South Africa. Ambush predator that lies camouflaged in wait for rodents and other small animals.

ODDITIES:

Fangs can grow to 2 inches long; prefers to hang on to prey rather than bite and release.

Docile, considered a reluctant biter; capable of controlling the amount of venom released.

Females can give birth to as many as 50 babies at a time.

Sources: Philadelphia Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, Out of Africa Wildlife Park

MOUNT PLEASANT - For a snake that's four feet long with lethal fangs and a hiss loud enough to curl hair, this African Gaboon viper remains a phantom.

Meanwhile, the search for it was suspended Monday at an apartment complex where its shed skin was found - suspended out of concern for searchers' safety.

Freshly molted skin from the venomous snake was discovered more than three weeks ago near the front office at Harbor Pointe Apartments, off Houston Northcutt Boulevard not far from Mount Pleasant Town Hall.

Once the skin was identified - and then second-opinioned because you just don't find the snakes here - searches began. Traps were set with live rodents. Surveillance cameras and thermal imaging equipment were placed. The grounds have been probed by nuisance animal professionals and at least one worker with two decades of experience hunting snakes.

But there's only been two, split-second sightings by residents of a large snake that could be the Gaboon.

Michelle Reid, of Animal Rescue and Relief, removed the traps and gear Monday after learning that the nearest any antivenin can be found is Africa, and the antivenin can't be brought to the United States until the Federal Food and Drug Administration approves it. She is trying to get that approval.

"We need to have an emergency plan in place if someone gets bit," Reid said. Her animal welfare group became involved because she has had experience with the snake and other venomous exotics in North Carolina, she said.

"There are more venomous snakes out there than people think," she said. "There's a lot involved here that adds to how dangerous this can be. We're not getting the cooperation we should be," she said. "I don't think people are taking this seriously enough and I'm afraid it's going to take something like a child getting bit. They need to take this seriously. Please be careful."

If the snake is spotted, the animal removal team will return to try to snare it, she said. Residents who think they see it are asked to call the apartment complex emergency number.

The skin was found near a baited rodent trap. Large vipers are notorious for staying put where there's prey.

"We really feel there's a large snake out there," said Raymond Covington, of Nuisance Wildlife Removal Service, who is working with Reid.

But the bottom line is this snake could be pretty well anywhere in Mount Pleasant. Gaboons have a roaming range of one-third to one-half mile, particularly during spring mating season. A study in the African wild showed that when relocated, the snake will travel nearly two miles in a single direction trying to find its home range. And the Mount Pleasant Gaboon is suspected be an exotic pet that was released or escaped. Maintenance crews in the apartment complex have not reported any residents keeping large snakes, said Jennifer Bailey, Harbor Pointe leasing manager.

But while the Gaboon doesn't have any real predators on the wet jungle floor in Africa, a reptile's life in the Lowcountry isn't so easy. Alligators and raptors prey on large venomous snakes. Coyotes are known to prey on at least the smaller ones, and coyotes have become their own kind of nuisance in the town. Other large snakes, particularly king snakes, eat venomous snakes, too. The complex is near the marsh, swampy bottoms and has two ponds. Snakes are a common occurrence.

"I'm starting to suspect we'll never see the snake again, honestly," said David Fruth, a lead maintenance worker in the complex. Fruth is no stranger to snakes, having hobby-hunted them for 21 years, he said. He's searched on his own for the Gaboon, a species he said he won't get more than this one chance to find and capture.

He knows they curl up in snug, reclusive spots and are camouflaged almost to the point of invisibility - the head is shaped like a leaf. But after more than three weeks searching on his own, Fruth hasn't seen one sign of the viper, he said.

Wherever it is, this Gaboon might be running out of cool. In Africa, the snakes keep to the deep shade of the jungle floor, largely out of sun. They tolerate temperatures only into the 80s. That's an average day in Mount Pleasant in May, not July.

But the snakes don't hunt often if they're fed, and nobody knows how well fed this one is. Residents have been concerned enough to leash their dogs close and watch where they step at night.

Around the complex office on Monday, squirrels darted, birds pecked at the lawns, a resident strolled up to ask for dust filter screens. Not man or beast seemed too put out. African Gaboon or not, big venomous snakes aren't anything that unusual in the Lowcountry.

"I think (residents) have accepted it," Bailey said. "But they ask for updates all the time."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.