Everybody know him as the “Beastmaster” because of his masterful snake catching skills, but few know about the horrifying past of this kind-hearted and loving man, called Mario Suterres.
By his own calculation he has saved more than a hundred lives over the past seven years, by rescuing snakes from houses.
By last week, Suterres says ten people had been bitten by snakes since the start of the year. Rehoboth and the surrounding areas that stretch to Mariental and Omeya are known for a number of ultra-venomous snakes, which include the Cape cobra and black mamba, as well as the spitting Zebra snake and tree snakes.
This year alone Suterres has captured 147 snakes from houses in the area. Compare that with his annually tally of on average 350 snakes, both lethally venomous and not so lethal reptiles. He captures the reptiles and sets them free again in the wild.
At the centre of his determination to set reptiles free is a life-altering civil war experience that Suterres went through as a six year old in 1974 in Angola. Both his parents were mowed down in front of his eyes.
It was at the height of the civil war in Angola that claimed millions of lives and left an estimated 10 million scared orphans when the war ended in 2002.
Suterres, whose family was originally from Spain and Brazil, was among the first orphans to flee Angola on foot in the late 1970s, crossing into Namibia.
“I ran for my life when my mother, a medical doctor and my father, a police commander, were mowed down in a hail of bullets from AK47’s in Huambo in central Angola at the height of the civil war.
“I found myself running with 48 other kids of my age as we fled from the school. Little did I know that our group would be on foot and alone for the next nine months as we made our way to the Namibian/Angolan border to find a new life,” he recalls.
Unbearable sadness is written all over his face as he recalls that hellish trip on foot, but he also hails the many people who gave them shelter and food and eventually made it possible for them to get to first Calais in south Angola and then Rundu in Namibia.
“But not before we experienced another situation made in hell. We landed up in an MPLA concentration camp in southern Angola, where we were treated as prisoners of war and had to work like slaves for a bun a week,” says the big man who stands some six foot three in his shoes (or in common parlance about 1,91 metres) and weighs well over 100kg.
“I’ve tasted the sour bread of life from a very early age. My understanding of nature and my love for reptiles was born in those nine months of facing all the elements of nature and it did me good. I survived evil, looked death in the eyes and learned what it means to live in a free and peaceful country like Namibia,” he says.
He also made it clear that he looks at the so-called ‘struggle kids’ quite differently than most people who see them as a menace. In them he sees himself.
“After my experience, I can relate to the struggle kids and how some of them must be feeling. We need to look with different eyes at these people and identify their needs and fears on an individual basis.
“We can’t wish them away. They are part of Namibia’s history and we have a responsibility to somehow, somewhere accommodate them and make them proud and hardworking Namibians,” he says.
As far as he is concerned not all of the struggle kids “are as lucky as I was”.
Unlike the ‘struggle kids’ he “found some family of my parents in Grootfontein and they put me through school and gave me an education. I married a girl from Rehoboth and when she left years later, I decided to stay on and do something worthwhile for my community.”
A snake hardly ever poses a danger, Guterres says. “Snakes are not dangerous; it is humans who make them dangerous. I always tell people if it is three metres away, you’re still safe,” he claims as he picks up a venomous yellow snake from a carrier on his trusted steed, his motorbike.
Educating people about how to deal with snakes is a task close to the 51-year-old’s heart and currently he is busy with a programme to educate farmers. Although he has been bitten by snakes before, they fortunately were not dangerous ones.
Guterres, who boasts 30 years of snake research, is appealing to government to assist him with a 4×4 vehicle to enhance his work and strengthen his efforts, especially his outreach to farms in the area.
At the moment, he operates from a small office, and is in need of an overhead projector and other furniture to complement his research and conservation efforts.