Up Close & Personal with Johan Marais

Upbringing & Youth

  • Where did you grow up, attend school & what are the things that stood out during your early & later childhood years?
    I was born in Benoni but we moved to Durban when I was 3 yrs old. My late father was in the flexible printing industry as a machine operator and my late mother was a home executive.  I have an older sister Nikki and a younger brother Nico.
    We lived in Montclair/Woodlands, a working class neighbourhood.
    It was an amazing area to grow up in – still very undeveloped. We spent most of our time playing in the bush, fishing in the sea and in rivers, etc. I also managed to spend a lot of my school holidays on farms belonging to relatives, largely in the Vryburg/Kuruman area and in Grootvlei/Balfour. My time in the bush in Durban and on all the farms resulted in some encounters with snakes and I developed a keen interest in snakes at a very young age.
    Fortunately I coped well with the academic aspects of school but was never very interested in what was going on there. I was very independent from an early age, did a lot of fishing, scuba diving and was a surf lifesaver at Durban Surf Lifesaving Club. I basically came and went as I liked and lived in the servant's quarters outside the house.
    I also started two businesses in high school – making leather belts and handbags as well as a motorcycle repair business.
    Regarding the leather belts, I purchased raw hide and stamped various designs on the leather before dyeing it and attaching brass buckles. The belts were very popular with denim jeans and I found an exporter who sent my belts to Europe. If I worked very hard I could finish 90 belts on a Saturday, giving me R90.00 profit which, in those days, was enough money to purchase a good second hand 50 cc motorcycle.
    Regarding my motorcycle repairs, I went around to pharmacies and purchased their written-off high mileage 100 cc delivery motorcycles. All of the spares fitted onto 50 cc motorcycles, the latter very popular with school kids who could only drive 50 cc from the age of 16 to 18. I charged for spares and my labour was free. But the mark-up on spares was massive. I could purchase a delivery bike for R30.00 and sell the spares for over R100.00. Needless to say, I didn't have much time for school and homework but was a prefect in Std 10 and passed with a university exemption.

  • What profession did you & your family envisage for you?
    It was thought that I would do a law degree at Potch University but when I finished Std 10 there was no money to further my studies.

  • Who were your role models and why did these persons make such an impression on you?
    Early on I had very few role models except for my father who was a humble, honest hard-working man. He worked for one company for over 30 years and worked six days a week. He often went to work in the early hours of the morning to fix broken machines. He had a lot of patience, didn't drink and treated my late mother and other people with respect and dignity.

  • What were the most important lessons taught to you by your parents?
    They taught me to be independent from a very early age and to respect other people.

  • What would you like to say to your parents in acknowledgement for the role they played in your life?
    I was blessed in that I had the most wonderful parents. My mother died the year after I finished school. My father always encouraged me in everything that I did and was of the view that we were the most amazing kids in the neighbourhood. I guess most parents think that of their kids! Sadly, after his health deteriorated with age and far too many years of smoking, my father passed away in 2006 at the age of 78.


  • Were you in the SADF and what influence has this experience had on you?
    Soon after school I joined the South African Police and spent six months training in Pretoria. Upon my return I spent about three months in uniform and was then offered a position in SANAB, commonly known as the Drug Squad. It was a tough but amazing time, working with drug smuggling organisations, runaway children, illegal immigrants, chemists, doctors and medical reps. It was also a lot of fun, somewhat like some of the glamorous detective stories on television.

  • When, where & why did your interest in snakes & reptiles originate?
    My interest in snakes started at a very early age, probably around 7 – 9, when I came into contact with snakes on farms and where I lived in Montclair. I also spent a lot of time with Michael Goetsch who was about 6 years older than me. He taught me to appreciate nature and we were either in the bush building camps and making arrows for our bows or diving for crabs off Salisbury Island in Durban Harbour (illegally I think because diving was not permitted in the harbour). I also caught my first lizards and the odd snake with Michael. It was a mild interest and in high school I invariably had a few snakes in a cage in my room. Once I joined the police I started keeping more and more snakes as well as a crocodile in an enclosure in the garden. It often escaped and if the neighbourhood housewives had brooms in their hands when I got home, I knew that the crocodile had escaped and that they used brooms to corner it.
    While in the police a person by the name of Raymond Taylor arrived at the house to look at the snakes. He mentioned Latin names and told me not to keep certain snakes with others as they ate snakes. His knowledge inspired me and for the first time I started purchasing books on snakes and increased my knowledge.

  • Tell us about your student days.
    I never studied! After my stint in the police I intended doing a BSc degree but had a few months spare before the new academic year. I managed to get myself a job at Fitzsimons Snake Park in Durban and leant a great deal about reptiles. During this time I befriended Gordon Setaro and Lynn Raw, two very experienced reptile people. I leant a great deal from them. While at the Snake Park, and before I registered for a BSc, I met Rod Patterson, owner of Transvaal Snake Park in Halfway House. He offered me a job with the understanding that I could attend lectures and do my BSc at the same time. Needless to say, soon after joining Transvaal Snake Park I was promoted to curator and never started my studies. It was, at the time, one of the very best snake parks in the world with the most modern facilities.

  • What sports & leisure activities do you participate in?
    I used to play squash, golf and gym as well as endure riding on a Yamaha WR 250. I jog regularly and spend as much time as possible in the field looking for reptiles.

  • What was your first job? (Full- and part-time)
    I started off as a clerk for the South African Railways. This lasted about three months. Then I joined the SAP where I lasted just over 2 years. Next was the Durban City Police – an amazing outfit with excellent training, the very best equipment and it was a lot of fun. One of the nicest parts was that we were always very mobile with good vehicles and when we arrested anyone for any crime, we handed the person to the SAP who had to open dockets, take fingerprints, find cells, etc. We just did the fun bits. This was followed by Fitzsimons snake Park and Transvaal Snake, the latter for 3 years.
    Next I had somewhat of an "off" year during which I sold life insurance and wrote my first book – 'Snake versus Man, a Guide to Dangerous and Common Harmless Snakes'.
    The following year I a started a knock and drop newspaper with Loekie Minnaar in Heidelberg, Gauteng. It became very popular very quickly but wasn't really my cup of tea. I did the business side of the newspaper as well as most of the photography. It lasted a year and I was approached by an Israeli company to help set up and run a crocodile farm Kwena Gardens at Sun City.
    Again, it was an amazing opportunity because I got to run one of the most advanced facilities of its kind in the world. While there I teamed up with Prof Gerrie Smith of the University of Pretoria and we did a whole bunch of research which resulted in a variety of technical papers that were published. We also got to present papers at conferences all over the world, including Zimbabwe, Thailand and various venues in the USA. It became quite interesting when it was revealed that the owner/developer of the park, Shaptai Kalmanovich, was a Russian KGB agent and his mission was to destroy the economies of Third World countries. He did quite a good job in Bophuthatswana and eventually ended up in jail in Israel
    After Kwena Gardens I joined Cango Crocodile Ranch in Oudtshoorn as a shareholder – a disastrous partnership which ended 5 months later. I ended up suing my partner for my share of the money and the matter was settled out of court in my favour nearly a year later.
    I then joined Arthur Wilmans to run Assagai Safari Park in the Valley of a 1000 Hills in KwaZulu-Natal but in essence I spent the next three years working on a massive project – an African Safari Park to be established in the south of France in a town called Hagetmau. It was a mini Disneyland with grassland mammals like Zebra, Giraffe, Kudu, Impala etc, a bird park with walk-through aviaries, a snake park, a crocodile farm and an authentic Zulu village with spear-makers and Zulu dancers as well as gift shops, restaurants etc. The project went very well but ran out of funds and was eventually liquidated.
    During the project I was offered the position of managing director of Manyane Game Lodge and Crocodile farm. Though my primary function was to farm crocodiles, I ended up spending 95% of my time managing 20 chalets and a very busy restaurant. It was another disastrous partnerships and I was relieved to get out of it. I learnt a great deal about business in the 3 years at Manyane, but most of the lessons were how not to do business and how not to treat people.
    Then I was offered the position of Sales and Marketing Director at Southern Book Publishers, the company through which I had published two books. It was a disaster and I quickly worked out that I was not a corporate person who could walk around in a pin-striped suite attending board meeting after board meeting, taking minutes and wasting hours! I was retrenched some 18 months later with two months salary, a 100% house bond, and a car on h.p. and less than R1, 000.00 in the bank. It was scary! 
    I couldn't find a job (36 years old, no qualifications, etc) and approached Usha and Mac Madhav, who I had met a few months before. They were selling excess and damaged books at Bruma Flea Market. We started a little book shop called Fascination Books in Eastgate Shopping Centre, selling books, cards and Chinese gifts. Usha and Mac financed the shop and we had a 50/50 partnership. I ran the shop on my own. After 5 months of trading and seemingly getting nowhere, I told Usha and Mac that they could have my 50% shares as I intended getting a job elsewhere. They persuaded me to purchase their 50% shares on very favourable terms, which I did. In the last 14 years I grew Fascination to 35 shops country wide with a substantial share of the South African retail book market.

Professional Career, Achievements & Research

  • Tell us about your academic pursuits. (Courses, institutions etc.)
    I did a Business Management course and a Management Accounting course through Damelin in 1988.

  • What was your greatest achievement?
    Undoubtedly setting up the Fascination Books chain

  • What was your greatest (most exciting or rewarding) find as a herpetologist?
    While doing a reptile survey in northern Mozambique in 2004 we found two new species of lizards – the first was described by Prof. Bill Branch, Dr. Mo Rodel and myself and is called Cordylus meculae. It was found on Mecula Mountain.

  • What more would you like to achieve in your profession?
    After losing what I had built up over 14 years with over 30 branches and more than 400 employees, it’s back to the beginning and starting from scratch.

I am now fully involved with reptiles, I offer a variety of snake awareness and snake handling courses, busy writing a few more books and doing a lot of photography, especially reptiles. I have teamed up with some medical doctors and we are busy putting together some standards for pre-hospitalisation treatment of snake bite in Africa. It is no easy task as we continuously have to deal with egos and people who just know it all and are seldom willing to engage in meaningful debate or follow logic.

  • Tell us about the books & publications you have written?
    This is another mouthful. I have written hundreds of popular articles as well as over 40 technical articles, most of these on crocodiles.
    Regarding books:

    •  My first book was 'Snake versus Man' - 1984

    • Followed by 'A Complete Guide to Snakes of Southern Africa' – 1992.

    • Then followed a book called 'Conservation and Utilization of the Nile Crocodile - 1991' which was edited by Prof Gerrie Smith and myself -  we also wrote more than half of the book with contributions from crocodile experts both local and international.

    • My next book was 'Snakes of the World - 1994', a publication that was published in five different languages internationally. It did exceptionally well with over 100,000 copies sold.

    • After that I wrote 'Snakes and Snakebite - 2001' and then a total re-write of 'A Complete Guide to Snakes of Southern Africa'. It was published in Feb 2004 and has been the top-selling Natural History book in South Africa ever since. It was chosen as Struik Publisher's Book of the Year in 2004 and has been reprinted seven times.

    • The next book was a little book called “What’s that Snake”. It has done exceptionally well and is also available in Afrikaans.

    • “A Guide to Retiles of Southern Africa” was written with my good friend Graham Alexander and with lots of excellent photographs contributed by various herpetologists and friends. Most of them supplied their photographs free of charge for which we are extremely grateful. 

    • The latest book is “What’s that Reptile” - somewhat of an idiot’s guide to reptiles of southern Africa. The team at Struik Publishers did a wonderful job when they put the book together and it has been selling very well.

  • What topics will your next book cover?
    I am now busy with a revision of “Snakes and Snake Bite in Southern Africa”, writing a technical book on snake bite management with my good friend Dr. Colin Tilbury and am also busy with a book on reptiles and amphibians of Namibia with Prof. Aaron Bauer. And then I have also started with a revised edition of “A Complete Guide to Snakes of Southern Africa” which has now sold well over 60,000 copies.

  • Are you a member of conservation associations, interest groups & educational organizations?

    I was a member of the Crocodile Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature for many years and have been a member of the Herpetological Association of Africa for close on 40 years. I am also the chairman of SARCA (Southern African Reptile Conservation Assessment), a project that was funded by the South African National Biodiversity Institute and managed by the ADU of the University of Cape Town. It was a five year program looking at the threatened status of every reptile in South Africa and the final results will be published soon.

Field Work & Research

  • Tell us about the interesting places & countries where you have been and what your objectives for going there were. What are the highlights of your findings?
    In recent years I have spent 6 weeks in Niassa Reserve in northern Mozambique doing a reptile and amphibian survey with Prof Bill Branch of Port Elizabeth Museum and Dr Mo Rodel of Germany. It was the first survey on reptiles and amphibians ever done in northern Mozambique and our task was to do a comprehensive survey of what occurs there. Needless to say, it was very interesting and we found some amazing reptiles/frogs, some of which are still being investigated.
    I also did a reptile/amphibian survey with Prof. Bill Branch and Dr Mike Cunningham on Mulanje Mountains in Malawi. Again, it was the first comprehensive survey in the area and at least one new species of frog was found.
    Otherwise I have been on numerous surveys in Namibia. Most are with Prof Aaron Bauer, one of the world authorities on phylogeny of Southern African reptiles.  I have also done several field trips to Namaqualand.
    In 2005 I also went to Uganda with Dr Colin Tilbury to find a very rare chameleon – it was described in 1930 and occurs on the Ruwenzori Mountains. Colin had seen two specimens some 15 years back but since nobody had seen or photographed this species. We found three specimens on our first night on top of the Ruwenzori mountains!
    I have also done a lot of field work in the greater Durban area. I worked on the natural history of a burrowing skink (Scelotes inornatus) that is only known from about 35 specimens collected over the past 120 years. It was thought to occur from the Blue Lagoon to the old Durban International Airport. I looked at its natural history (reproduction, diet, and behaviour), distribution and abundance. Part of my work included a mark/recapture study on a 1,500 square meter study site. I captured, marked and released over 100 lizards and recaptured 12.

  • What are the greatest frustrations in your field of work? How do you overcome them?
    I have very little constraints with regards to field work and enjoy spending time in the bush. On some of the surveys we struggle with food and live in primitive conditions but it doesn't really bug me. Obtaining collecting permits can be a pain but that is understandable as there is a lot of illegal trade in reptiles. Pepper ticks drive me insane and after a recent trip to Pongola I had more than 130 of them stuck to me!

  • Have you ever been bitten by a venomous snake?
    This is rather an embarrassing question and not something that we easily admit to. When I started working seriously with snakes at both Fitzsimons and Transvaal Snake Parks I had a few near misses but have never had antivenom. I quickly realized that I was learning the wrong things from inexperienced people and since early 1980 I have handled dangerous snakes from all over the world without any problems.

  • Have you had some close encounters with other wild animals while in the bush?

    While working with crocodiles I had two very close encounters that really had me sweating but, again, I walked away with minor scars. We do run into problems with elephant in some of the areas that we work in and they were particularly problematic in Niassa Reserve in northern Mozambique, especially at night. There were also lots of elephant cows with young and they had us running on more than one occasion. I also ended up in somewhat of a buffalo stampede just after midnight in Niassa. It was quite an experience!

  • Which animals amuse, entertain & annoy you out in the bush and why?

Monkeys and meerkats always amuse us while a variety of birds, like fork-tailed drongos are well worth watching. My greatest hate is feral cats – they breed like crazy, are very agile and intelligent and kill off a lot of snakes, lizards and birds. A recent study in the U.K. revealed that 250,000,000 birds are killed there every year by cats, either domestic or feral.

  • What suggestions would you like to offer to the Minister of Environmental Affairs & Tourism?

    Tough one. We obviously need to sort out crime in this country and it has a massive effect on tourism. We also have amazing facilities and a lot to offer but our standards are far too low. International travellers see the world and know what they can get for their Dollars. Third world facilities and service, like in the KNP, just isn't good enough. If one considers Wilderness Safaris, they offer bed nights in excellent camps in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Seychelles at very high prices, often exceeding $1,000 per person per night, and they are often fully booked for the winter. We need a serious wake-up and some vision.

  • What is the most important message that you would like to convey to farmers & rural people?

    Another tough question. Both farmers and rural people need a great deal of education. It is also very difficult to have a situation where you have the KNP full of game and on the other side of the fence you have rural people with no food. The same applies to coastal resources – yuppies with ski boats and jet skis can fish areas where locals are regarded as poachers.

  • What field trips & quests do you plan in the near future?

    We are planning some major expeditions to northern Mozambique and the new frontier is Angola.

  • Can we expect an educational TV series on reptiles & snakes from you in the near future?

    Unlikely. All of the money for such programs goes for dramatized reptile productions on Discovery and Animal Planet. We used to work on some of these projects but they have become so pathetic and, in many ways, dishonest. I no longer work on any of them – everything is so set up!

  • Typically, how do you live in the bush while doing research?

    We camp very primitively, usually in one-man tents or otherwise we sleep under the stars. We each take a sleeping bag, small inflatable mattress and as little equipment as possible. Basic cooking utensils, camera gear and scientific equipment. We seldom have any help unless we're in northern Mozambique or places like Malawi for a month – then we will employ one person to help cook, wash and carry equipment in the field. We are busy both in the day and at night, obviously scratching around for reptiles and frogs. The frogs are done mainly at night but we also climb rock outcrops at night with torches looking for snakes and geckos.

  • Have you been given a nickname or -names by your assistants? Tell us the story behind the name/s.
    I have not attracted many nicknames – the only one commonly used for me is 'Akkedis' and I have been called this by a variety of different people.

  • Who would you like to acknowledge for assistance & encouragement for your achievements?
    A few friends have had an enormous impact on my life. Prof Gerrie Smith taught me a great deal about life, achievements, hard work, time management and, most importantly, attitude. In the 1980's, when my career wasn't going well, I started reading a variety of business books by the likes of Peter Drucker, Edward de Bono, Tom Peters, Stephen Covey, etc. and listened to a variety of programs by the likes of Brian Tracey and Dennis Waitley. Brian Tracey's program The Phoenix Seminar – The Psychology of Achievement, had an enormous impact on me and I learned a great deal from it. I was fortunate enough to meet Brian Tracey at the American Book Fair in Chicago a several years back and we chatted for a few hours.
    Then there are my good friends Timothy Simpkins, Clive Deacon, Nush Goncalves, Paul Moler, Graham Alexander and Randy Babb. They are wonderfully supportive and time with them is valuable. Paul has made it a habit to travel to Africa every year and we always go on a few field trips to areas that both of us enjoy.

    With the demise of Fascination we very quickly learnt who our friends were and it is quite frightening to see how some of them disappear like mist in the morning sun. I have incredible friends and although I seldom see some of them, I receive a lot of support from them and love spending time with them.

My daughter Melissa is very special and I love her dearly.

Johan at Leisure

  • What are your free time interests? What do you do & where do you go to unwind?
    I have such a great time that most of what I do is fun. I love fly-fishing and have fished a variety of rivers and dams in South Africa as well as the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe. Then I have fished for trout in Austria on the Agar river as well as the Gallatin River in Montana. My fly-fishing highlights were fishing for bonefish, tarpin and permit off the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, bonefish and kingfish off St Brandon Islands north of Mauritius and I caught a sailfish off Malindi in Kenya.
    Otherwise I do a lot of photography, mainly reptiles but also general photography.

  • Where is your favourite place of retreat?
    Springbok in Namaqualand. I want to buy a farm in Namaqualand.

  • What is/was your favourite vacation?
    I love travelling and getting to new countries. My favourite destinations are Thailand and parts of the USA – I love the people and the food in Thailand. Despite what many people tell me, I love the people in America and have only met wonderful people there. I have visited more than 30 states in the USA.

  • Who are your best companions and what special qualities do they have?
    Paul Moler from Florida, USA and Randy Babb as well as my good friend Gordon Setaro. We spend a lot of time in the field looking for reptiles, doing photography and with Randy I do fly-fishing and wing shooting. Time with them in the field is just amazing. I also treasure the coffee sessions with Graham Alexander and just wish we could spend more time in the field together.

Family Life

  • Tell us more about your wife.
    Sadly, I was divorced from my first wife Molleen after more than 20 years of marriage. She's a wonderful person and we had lots of good times together. She now lives in Cape Town and we are still very good friends.

    I met my second wife Riaana in 2004 and we got married in 2008. Despite lots of good times, Riaana chose to end our marriage in 2012.

    Your kids – their ages, interests & special qualities.
    My daughter Melissa is the most amazing person you could ever meet. She is 25 and about to finish her B Com at the University of Pretoria. She works part-time in a top restaurant in Pretoria and also as a wedding videographer. She is always pleasant, laid back, hardworking and has a great attitude to life. She hasn’t given us two minutes of problems and I absolutely adore her. If there were more Melissas around, the world would be a much better place. She hopes to head off to South Korea in 2013 to teach English for a year and do some travelling..

    Read Article on Johan Marais in Rapport 10th of August 2008. Click here for 'pdf format.