Thursday, August 22

Snake Travels in Watamu

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Sita Snake Park

The Sita Community Snake Park near Mida Creek cares for snakes, chameleons, lizards and other kinds of reptiles. It was started by residents of Watamu to conserve local wildlife, educate people about snakes and create a viable ecotourism venture in this primarily fishing community.

We were taken around by Jackson Mwamure who grew up in Watamu and is the main reptile handler. In the snake section of Sita Park are several glass-fronted wooden cages containing different serpants. An African cobra raised its head and followed the movement of Mwamure’s hand. A short, thick puff adder lay unmoving in its box.

There was a black mamba, highly poisonous with an ash-grey body. It gets its name from the black coloration of its mouth. The tree-dwelling green mamba is equally venomous but very attractive. Jackson explained that snakes have limited vision but a sharp sense of smell which they perceive through their forked tongues.

Watching him handle the snakes, it is clear he is passionate about them. A snake bite some years ago landed him in hospital for several days yet he continues to work with them. When he is not at the park, Mwamure is out in the community creating awareness and offering snake removal services.

With his guidance you can hold some of the non-venomous species like a spotted bush snake or the hook nosed, rufous beaked snake. I held a common house snake, keeping my grip relaxed as instructed, feeling its smooth yet scaly body.

Several of us stood in a line to hold a large African rock python with strong, rippling muscles. They are not poisonous but can inflict a sharp bite. Thankfully Jackson was in charge of the python’s head.

Other reptiles at Sita Park are tortoises which stay inside a sandy pit surrounded by a waist-high wall. There were small hinge-back tortoises, side-necked terrapins in a pool of water and larger leopard tortoises. The tortoises share their space with two monitor lizards which were not very friendly, judging from the growling noises they were making at us. But Jackson was comfortable jumping into the pit with them.

In another enclosure was a new comer, a very young crocodile that was found alone in the wild. From the way it was hissing at us Jackson says it is probably a female crocodile.

Bio-Ken Snake Farm

Further north in Watamu is another snake facility, the Bio-ken Snake Farm. It was started in 1980 by the late James Ashe and his wife, Sanda. Ashe’s Cobra, the largest species of spitting cobra, is named after James, who was the first to document its capture in the 1960s.

I am amazed to discover that the Bio-ken laboratory is the only facility in East Africa that extracts snake venom for the manufacture of snakebite antivenom serum. They milk 5 species of cobra, 3 species of mamba and 3 species of vipers on a regular basis. The snake handlers have to undergo 3 years of training in snake care and venom extraction.

This herpetarium or exhibit of amphibians and reptiles, has an even bigger selection of tortoises, lizards, crocodiles, chameleons, frogs, toads and snakes. Inside the glass boxes are snakes with pretty patterns, broad heads and unusual names like twig viper, boomslang and burrowing snake.

A lot of the captive snakes are retrieved in homes and farms in Kilifi and the neighbouring counties. Without this service from Bio-ken, the snakes would most likely be killed because of negative superstition and fear of snake bite.

The Bio-ken guides are very knowledgeable about the over 100 animals in their care, many of which are rehabilitated back into the wild.

The warm coastal climate is ideal for many species of snakes, and I learn that puff adders and cobras are the main culprits of poisonous snakebites in Watamu. If left untreated, the poison causes tissue necrosis that can lead to loss of limbs. Black mamba and green mamba snakebites are less common but very deadly. Their venom attacks the neurological system, causing muscle paralysis, breathing difficulty and death if not properly treated.

Royjan Taylor is director of Bio-ken and the James Ashe Antivenom Trust (JAAT). He told me about a child attacked this year by a spitting cobra that had climbed to the 1st floor of a building. It was 5 days before she was taken to hospital in Malindi, the largest town in Kilifi County. “She had a lot of tissue damage and they had to do some debriding. We spent a lot of money on antivenom and surgery,” says Kenyan-born Taylor. He has been crazy about snakes since childhood and started off as a snake handler at Bio-ken.

A single 10ml vial of snakebite antivenom costs about $125, too expensive for poor rural communities who are most at risk. Quite often people will visit a traditional healer for treatments such as black stone application which is mostly ineffective against toxic venoms.

Taylor explained how antivenom production is based on 19th century technology. Fresh snake venom is injected into horses which have natural resistant to snake venom and are able to develop antibodies. Many months later, blood is drawn from the horse and the serum containing antibodies is extracted, purified and packaged for medical use. It is a long, complicated and expensive process. “There might be some different technology in the future but for now that’s what we have,” says Taylor.

About 1,000 Kenyans die from snakebite annually and many more lose limbs or suffer permanent disability. I learned that Bio-ken export their venom to the South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR), the only producers of polyvalent antivenom against multiple species of African snakes. James Ashe Antivenom Trust (JAAT) are the sole suppliers of effective antivenom in Kenya and, because of the high cost, can only stock limited amounts. From Watamu, vials of antivenom are airlifted to other parts of the country.

Sobering news as you stroll through the farm housing some of Africa’s deadliest snakes. But on the bright side, by building the capacity of local healthcare workers to treat snakebite and supplying effective antivenom, Taylor says that the small town of Watamu has been 100% successful at treating snakebite cases presented in local hospitals.

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