Within 12 days in July, Baringo loses its famous snake men

Published: The East African Nation newspaper: 31 July-5 August 2021

By Rupi Mangat

“You will find a carpet viper under one out of every ten rocks,” states Jonathan Ewoi, the youngest son of the recently deceased ‘Dr’ William Ewoi, one of Baringo’s legendary ‘wazees’ who handled the most venomous snakes with supreme ease. I’m following the younger Ewoi, named after Jonathon Leakey who was the ‘Dr’s’ long-time employer and mentor. Leakey passed away a few days after the senior Ewoi, both men having lived into their 80s.

Mzee Jonathan, John Cooper, Mzee Giriama, Mzee Elim, Mzee Edapal, Peter Nares at Leakey’s snake park Kampi ya Samaki.
Credit and copyright Margaret Cooper in 1970

All around us, the ground is bare and baked red by the sun, strewn with rocks and desert plants that have adapted to the intense heat of the arid lands. It stretches north into the deserts of Kenya. Yet, a few feet away is the famous freshwater Lake Baringo lying in the Great Rift Valley. Like the other Rift lakes, it has risen phenomenally since 2010 to submerge many lakeshore buildings like the hotels, houses and hospitals.

We’re near the urban centre, Kambi ya Samaki where the two men lived for most of their adult lives. Lined across the horizon are the iconic copper-coloured high cliffs of Baringo, home to amazing wildlife like the raptors and reptiles.

Suddenly there’s a shout. Jonathan picks a rock to find the foot-long viper. The snake is so well-camouflaged that at first, I do not see it. It’s coiled but now disturbed, it begins to slither in a circular fashion rubbing its scales against each other to make a sawing sound.

Jonathan Ewoi, Mzee Ewoi’s son with carpet viper near Kambi ya Samaki on Baringo’s shores. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Very calmly, the young man picks up a twig and places it on the serpent’s head and picks it up gently, firmly holding the viper’s head. The venom from the fangs of this beautifully-patterned viper could end a life. If the victim does survive, it is at the cost of a limb or more as the toxic venom destroys tissue.

The carpet viper of Baringo is named in honoUr of Jonathan Leakey Echis pyramidum leakeyi. Its other name is Leakey’s saw-scaled viper. It is the most common snake found in this harsh environment.

Left alone under its shaded rock, people walk past unaware of the venomous viper. But when disturbed, it strikes fast with a deadly bite.

Leakey from the famous fossil finding family supplied snake venoms of East African snakes to South Africa and the US for the manufacture of anti-venom. Unlike his parents Louis and Mary Leakey, who trail-blazed the hominid finds in East Africa from the 1930s onwards, Jonathan chose to chase after snakes, leaving the field open for his younger brother, the conservationist Richard and his wife, Maeve and daughter Louise.

However, few know that Jonathan who was born on November 4, 1940 had a brief stint in fossil finding. Exactly twenty years later on his birthday in 1960, the young Leakey found the fossil remains of a 10-year-old child of a Homo habilis that was nicknamed ‘Jonny’s child’. Officially, tagged OH 7, the fossils were discovered in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania.

The remains are fragmented parts of a lower jaw and hand bones that are similar to that of humans but unlike in humans the fingers are long and curved like those of a chimpanzee.

Jonathan Leakey and John Lee at Kampi ya Samaki. Pic courtesy of John Lee

But Jonathan did not stay long in the fossil-finding field. In an interview, he said that there was enough family involvement in anthropology and as he had always liked snakes, he decided to see if he could do something with them.

Jonathan established the Nairobi Snake Park in 1961 and served as its first curator. He then set up his own snake farm at Baringo in the 1970s, leaving his now submerged home on the shores of the lake one last time before he died this year on 12th July.

Running in with the law

“In 1990, my father started working for Jonathan Leakey,” recounts Jonathan Ewoi. “He got very interested in snakes, catching them for Jonathan. When in 2001 my father retired, he opened his own snake farm in Baringo.”

By then, Leakey had closed his snake farm to concentrate on other business ventures. “He was always trying new ventures,” states Dr Bonnie Dunbar of Ol Kokwe island on Lake Baringo. “He tried fish farming, growing water melons and spirulina for export and so much more in this harsh environment. He knew a lot .”

According to the young Ewoi, Leakey transferred the snake farm licence to his father with 15 years remaining to operate the snake farm.

Unfortunately, continues Ewoi, the authorities weren’t impressed. In 2003, they confiscated the snake collection and took the reptiles to the new snake park, citing that the seasoned snake handler was operating illegally – and threw him into jail for nine days.

Older son Ewoi at his father’s grave at home at Kambi ya Samaki on Baringo’s shores. Copyright Rupi Mangat

Standing at the grave of the snake handler marked with a simple tombstone and etchings of messages from his family, his son states, “My father was the best snake handler around.

“We are very upset because we are the ones who know how to catch and handle snakes. Yet we are ignored. The snakes at the snake park are not properly handled and put in poorly designed cages. Right now in Baringo, there are no snake handlers.”

We stroll around the simple homestead of mud huts with Esther Ewoi, the ‘Dr’s’ wife chipping away at rocks to sell to builders, living in abject poverty. She is respected for her ability to treat snake bites with the ‘black stone’…effective for the non-venomous kind. But for most people, all snakes are dangerously venomous.

A few kilometres down the road, is the clinic opposite the snake park. The clinical officer rummages through the unkept store looking for the anti-snake venom but doesn’t find it.

I wonder what would happen if a snake-bite victim was brought in now.

“We have very few cases,” says the clinical officer in defence. The ones who receive a lethal bite have to be transferred to the hospital in Marigat, 20 kilometres away. A bite from a carpet viper can do its damage in every passing second.

A Legacy to honour

Jonathan Leakey – credit Julia Leakey

“Everybody in Baringo knew Leakey,” states Jackson Komen, the county warden. “We’ve lost an icon, a conservationist, a pioneer in snake farming. He trained all these guys to handle snakes.”

Komen acknowledges that snake bite is a neglected disease. Most snake bites require specific anti-venom to deal with the appropriate snake. According to him, the county has 300 snake bites victims a month. “We have massive cases of amputation and disability from snake bites.”

In response, says Komen, the government has ear-marked Ksh 17 million for a modern snake farm in conjunction with the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI). It will be a collection centre for milking snakes for their venom brought in by licenced snake handlers – hopefully like the late Mzee’s sons. But for now the law prohibits them from handling snakes.

“Jonathan was a game changer here,” says John Lee who worked for a time with Leakey in the 1970s. “People used to kill snakes as soon as they saw one, venomous or not. But once they found out that Leakey paid for spotting snakes, they would report to us the location of the snake and Leakey would send his snake handlers to retrieve the snakes.”

“Leakey was a father to many and respected as an elder,” concludes Moses Chebii, a chief in Baringo. “He supported schools and the hospital, paid school fees, built the airstrip and regularly donated food to so many families. He will be missed.”

Important snake contacts

Bio-Ken in Watamu stores anti venom: Save Emergency Snakebite Phone: +254 718 290324

Importance of snakes: They are the best pest-control agents, saving the farmers and government from buying chemical pesticides that down the food chain affect us and other creatures.

Keep snakes away by keeping the compound trash free and covering water in debes outside.

Best thing when you see a snake – stop and calmly walk away. As the late James Ashe, founder of Bio-Ken said, “the snake will be more than happy to see you walk away.”

In the dark, shine a torch on your path.

Before wearing closed shoes shake them.

Don’t sleep on the floor. Have a mosquito net secured around you.