Four amazing women make a career of working with snakes. Attending the tenth international snakebite seminar at Bio-Ken snake farm in Watamu recently, each narrates the path taken.

East African 7-13 Jan 2017

Handling live venomous snakes is an extra-ordinary noble but extremely dangerous profession.

One reason for handling venomous snakes is to milk them – which is the only way to obtain snake venom to produce supplies of anti-venom. Without anti-venom being readily available and administered, a bite from any venomous snake can be deadly. Ironically, anti-venom can only be produced from ample supplies of venom from live venomous snakes. And it takes some dexterity to do that.

Diana Barr

Young and dynamic, Barr’s job as technical support officer at the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne and Global Snakebite Initiative, an Australian non-profit organisation working to reduce snakebite deaths and disability around the world, puts her in very close contact with the most venomous snakes in the world.

Her areas of expertise are in the safe extraction of venom from snakes so it can be used for research of anti-venom production, and the handling of the snakes themselves – aiming to maximise safety for both the people doing the handling, and for the snakes being handled.

Of recent, she is working to improve the production of snake venoms for use in anti-venom production in India, training snake handlers in new techniques that can improve the quality and volume of venom they produce from each snake.

Brought up in small village in Yorkshire, she was drawn to snakes like a moth to a lamp – entranced by their unblinking eyes, flicking tongue and their incredible speed and agility.

“Snakes are shrouded in superstitions, legends and myths and I was fascinated by these.  I was equally in awe of their ability to kill a person with a single bite,” she says.

In her 20s’, she backpacked in Australia for a year, camping out with Aborigines, encountering many amazing animals, including snakes. She met the herpetologist David Williams, a snakebite expert and founder of GSI. Within a few weeks, she was handling some of Australia’s most venomous snakes and performing venom extractions under his expert tuition.

“Working with large powerful venomous snakes can be exhausting but you must remain 100 per cent focused and have lightning reflexes,” she says.  “Some snakes will fling themselves around, snapping at your hands, legs, body, face, sometimes in rapid succession. Working with large powerful venomous snakes requires a good deal of upper body strength, stamina and dexterity.”

Her old favourite is the Gaboon viper (Bitis gabonica) – “but there are so many beautiful snakes out there that I tend to fall in love with a new one each week,” she jokes.

“In Africa alone,” she says, “it is estimated that 20,000 to 30,000 people die from snakebite annually, with thousands more permanently disabled, disfigured, suffering loss of limbs, blindness and psychological trauma.  This is further compounded by the catastrophic economic burden faced by the family of the victim.  Many are forced to sell their belongings such as their livestock and take their children out of school to pay for the treatment of a snakebite and thus face a lifetime of poverty and destitution.”

And it doesn’t have to be this way she says, for every snakebite is treatable and every snakebite is preventable.

“Early treatment with effective anti-venom can save lives and limbs,” says Barr. “This is why it is very important to work and network with local people – experts on home ground –  who can take the lead themselves because they have the advantage of already understanding the problems from a local standpoint.  We are really eager to work with people across Sub-Saharan Africa to raise awareness of the problem of snakebite envenoming, to push for policy implementation and action by governments, and to develop solutions.”

Snake anti-venoms are currently amongst the most effective treatments for snakebite envenoming. “We believe that all people should have access to safe, affordable (better still: FREE) and effective anti-venoms – especially in remote rural areas.  Sadly, this isn’t the case, even though anti-venoms are listed by the World Health Organization as Essential Medicines – drugs that all citizens should have access to.

“Making snakebite a ‘reportable disease’ would be a game-changer,” continues Barr. “It would enable the collection of invaluable data from health centres and hospitals from all snakebite patients.  With this information, we can thoroughly understand the full extent and the complexities of the problem, and then develop strategies for effective long term solutions.” In Kenya and most developing countries, snakebite is not a reportable disease.

According to Barr, snakebite seminars like the one organized by Bio-Ken bring together experts from across Africa and from overseas to share their knowledge and experience, to plan strategies and to be the voice of snakebite victims so that this medical condition with its far-reaching consequences is not swept under the mat and forgotten.

Unfortunately, policy makers who have the power at their fingertips, promise to attend this seminar but consistently fail to do so, as this year.

Public awareness and working with communities has far reaching impacts, she says. “In Papua New Guinea, approximately 1,000 people die from snakebite every year.  About 80 per cent of these bites are on the foot or ankle.  By informing Papua New Guineans of these statistics and encouraging everyone to wear appropriate footwear, we have the potential to prevent about 80 per cent of these deaths by stopping the envenomation from happening in the first place.

“In light of this information, an oil palm plantation in PNG took the initiative by introducing a Health and Safety regulation whereby all plantation workers had to wear rubber boots. The incidence of snake envenomation on the plantation then dropped from 50 workers per year, to zero.”

For anyone who wants to become a snake handler, Barr says that first and foremost you must have a genuine love of snakes. “The ability to competently and safely handle venomous snakes requires mutual understanding between the handler and the snakes. Either you have that gift, or you don’t.”

The rest can be learnt via books, courses, and so on but skills and wisdom are acquired over time and nothing compares to the importance of years of practical experience in the field and in the serpentarium with a reputable teacher or mentor.  The behavioural traits and physical abilities of snakes vary considerably between species and handlers must have the ability to read a snake like a book, and anticipate its’ every move.

“I must stress here that anyone who works with venomous snakes must be fully aware of the consequences that a bite and subsequent envenomation could result in.  Professional snake handlers are losing their lives on a regular basis to snakebite, and I mean on a weekly basis.  It is an extremely dangerous occupation, especially when your life is often placed in the hands of co-workers and vice versa.

“If this information hasn’t deterred you, then you likely have got what it takes to succeed,” she states.

Sanda Ashe

Sanda Ashe handling cobra. Picture courtesy
Sanda Ashe handling cobra. Picture courtesy

Sanda, now in her 70s, began handling snakes as a teenager. She founded Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu with her late husband, the incredible James Ashe who has the world’s largest species of spitting cobra Naja ashei named after him in 2007 thanks to his persistent calling that this was a different snake from the other spitting cobra.

Bio-Ken is a reptile research centre under the leadership of Royjan Taylor, Ashe’s protégé. It deals especially with snakes and snakebite and houses the largest collection of snakes in East Africa and is open to the public. Since 2006 it has organized the annual international snakebite seminar.

Sanda, now retired but still living in the house she shared with James and the retinue of snakes that is Bio-Ken Snake Farm, is still apt at handling snakes as she relates a recent incident in December 2016.

“Two night ago, I wrestled a large Spitting Cobra.”

“It was late at night,” she narrates. “The snake was in a patch of thick, thorny bush and was pushing its way through the leaf litter into a hole in the coral rag.

“When half the snake had moved slowly out of sight, I decided to catch it because some of these holes in the coral go deep and the snake could come up elsewhere. The askari came round to my side of the bush to help by shining his torch in the right direction and we made our way back with the snake to where we had an empty cage that would keep it safely.  I was fairly puffing by the time we finished because it’s surprising how heavy such a snake can be on the end of a snake-stick. But at least it ended with none of us hurt and the cobra had not once tried to spit at either of us.”

Guess what species of spitting cobra it was?

A Naja ashei!

 “Bio-Ken works to improve public acceptance of the need for snakes as an important part of the food chain in nature,” says Sanda.To help people to accept this, we do as much as we can to protect people from the consequences of bites from the few dangerous species.”

Winnie BorePharmacist and health economist

Winnie Bore - activist and founder of Snakebite-Kenya - to provide anti-venom in rural areas, help rehabilitate victims disabled or visually impaired by snakebites and develop a research programme simply because there is very little information on snakebites in Kenya.
Winnie Bore – activist and founder of Snakebite-Kenya – to provide anti-venom in rural areas, help rehabilitate victims disabled or visually impaired by snakebites and develop a research programme simply because there is very little information on snakebites in Kenya. Copyright picture Rupi Mangat

Watching snake bite victims succumb to snakebites led her to become an activist and found Snakebite-Kenya – to provide anti-venom in rural areas, help rehabilitate victims disabled or visually impaired by snakebites and develop a research programme simply because there is very little information on snakebites in Kenya.

“There was a man from Tharaka-Nithi who lost his leg because he received the anti-venom too late. It was preventable but by the time he got it, the leg was rotting. It had to be amputated. I felt l had to help communities deal with snakebites.”

“From a health economist’s point of view,” says Bore, “not treating snakebites with the correct anti-venom is both costly for the government as well as the community, both socially and economically.”

Nancy Njeri

Nancy Njeri and Kyle Ray - profesional snake handlers at Bio-Ken Snake Farm Watamu, Kenya
Nancy Njeri and Kyle Ray – profesional snake handlers at Bio-Ken Snake Farm Watamu, Kenya Copyright Rupi Mangat

In her 30s, Njeri is a professional snake handler at Bio-Ken Snake Farm, working her way up to gold-level which means she can then handle the really venomous snakes like the mambas on her own. It’s a three-year programme at Bio-Ken that teaches you how to catch, handle and milk snakes.

“My father taught me how to handle snakes and as l grew older l told him that’s what l wanted to do – handle snakes,” tells Njeri.

“Snakes,” continues the young woman nonchalantly, “don’t bite to kill us intentionally. They bite to defend themselves.”

In the wild, if you come face to face with a venomous snake

According to Barr, move away slowly to a safe distance. Standing still doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get bitten. Do not harass, capture or kill the snake. This is when people get themselves bitten.

Observe the snake (if this interests you), or simply leave the area. If the snake is sick or injured, or is in an area of human habitation and likely to come into contact with people, you should call a licenced snake rescuer. A reputable snake rescuer will take whatever action is in the best interests of the snake and the community.

A well-educated community will understand the value of snakes and will have learned to co-exist with them.  Removing the snake is usually a last resort, undertaken only if the snake and the people present an immediate danger to each other.  Here the role of the snake rescuer as a community educator also comes into play, utilising the situation to talk to the people and give them information about snakes, snakebite and correct treatment, and to dispel incorrect information and myths.

Bio-Ken Snake Farm

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.