Learning about the Reptilian World of Snakes and Scorpions
Main picture: Nancy Njeri and Kyle Ray – profesional snake handlers at Bio-Ken Snake Farm Watamu, Kenya
Copyright Rupi Mangat
A gorgeous tropical blue snake is twined around a twig. It’s a speckled bush snake and not venomous. Nancy Njeri, the professional snake handler is giving the grand tour of the snake farm that was started in 1980 by the late and very amazing James Ashe and his wife Sanda. Sanda still handles the snakes and other injured animals and return them to the wild. She has the reputation of being the finest snake-handler – especially the venomous green mamba.
Njeri on the other hand is working her way up to the gold-level –when she will be allowed to handle the really venomous snakes like black mambas – alone.
“Speckled bush snakes come indifferent colours,” tells the young woman and continues to take us around, giving tit-bits about the reptiles in residence. “This is the twig snake,” she points to another thin, long snake that really looks like the paler cousin of the speckled bush snake only that as Njeri tells us, it is a venomous snake that has no antivenom manufactured for its bite. I’d hate to be bitten by this one (or any other) as it means going to hospital for a blood transfusion.
“Anyway,” continues the young woman nonchalantly, “snakes don’t bite to kill. They bite to defend themselves.”
That’s so nice to know.
Bio-Ken snake farm has over the years become a respected research centre, which deals with reptiles, especially snakes and snake-bite.
There are the other common snakes – the very pretty black-eyed Battersby’s Green Snake that’s totally harmless but gets battered for looking like a green mamba; the boomslang with its big eyes that delivers a very nasty bite with a venom that is a hemotoxin – disabling the blood from clotting. The victim may die as a result of internal and external bleeding. Luckily, it likes to stay up in trees and is active during the day.
Then comes the Tiger snake – you don’t need to be a genius to figure out why it’s called that – it’s has stripes like a tiger. Though mildly venomous, it does no harm to people as it much rather hunt birds in their nests.
“This is one of the rarest snakes we have,” shows Njeri. It’s a Mount Kenya bush viper. Thankfully it’s very shy and very rare and also very venomous. Chances of seeing it in the wild in the massif of Kenya and the Aberdares are very slim.
Then comes the Puff adder – thick bodies and wide spread, it’s the one that most bites most victims.
Neighbouring it is a baby Egyptian cobra born at Bio-Ken and like most children, the little guy slithers around the cage playfully raising its head – with a fully-fledged hood and as lethal as the adult. It’s the one that apparently Cleopatra used to commit suicide – not a smart choice because death is painful and slow.
It’s a fascinating tour of the snake farm with cute harmless boas and fat, gigantic pythons and many more.
Njeri then points to a file snake. It has an interesting history. “It feeds on other snakes – even the venomous ones because it has the immunity in its body. But itself, it’s harmless.”
“Our prize-catch is Naja ashei,” tells Kyle Ray who is also a professional snake handler. Also called Ashe’s spitting cobra it is the world’s largest species of spitting cobra found only in Africa. Named after James Ashe, the founder of Bio-Ken and because he was the first to notice it was different from the brown-coloured form of the black-necked spitting cobra (N. nigricollis) with which it was lumped. The largest one ever caught was in Kenya – 8.9 feet long.
As we’re strolling around, there’s excitement in the snake pit – only it has no snakes in it but two men – Anthony Childs and Zachary – with a plastic box that looks like a sandwich box. When they open it, it’s full of scorpions.
Most are tiny except for the Parabuthus maximus that delivers the most painful sting – as Childs can verify because he’s been stung by it.
According to Childs, there’s almost nothing known of scorpions in Kenya except that scorpions are easily recognised from the tail that delivers the sting and the claws. The challenge now is to record Kenya’s scorpions – the taxonomy, species, mapping and distribution. Zachary picks one with a pair of pincers – it’s a Babithrus – the first one recorded from Tsavo.
“We’re finding things all the time,” tells an enthusiastic Childs.
The grand finale of the tour is when Njeri and Kyle bring out a black mamba for demonstration. It slithers on the floor and when it emits a loud hiss we all jump back while the two snake-handlers calmly pick it up to return it in its abode.
More on Snakes
Emergency snakebite number: 254 718 290 324
A snakebite must be diagnosed correctly and the correct anti-venom administered.
In Kenya there are about 127 snake species. Of these only six can kill, another ten cause a lot of pain and the other 93 or so are not venomous and harmless.
Family friendly stay in Watamu
Published Nation newspaper Saturday magazine Jan 7 2017