Children and Snakes – Teaching the next generation.

It has been a while since our last blog. This has been a very tough year for all of us in Kenya. Hopefully things will start to improve soon as we love our country, it’s people and it’s wildlife but we all came close to the abyss this year. Security has been fine and in fact very good in our area except for having to replace our laptop and camera, but we have all suffered from the drop in visitors to Bio-Ken.

Since January this year we have released staggering number of reptiles back into the wild and have been able to teach a lot of young people about the importance of conserving all wildlife including reptiles and especially snakes. Here are a few pictures of where we have been and what we have been up to.

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Tortoises                                     More Tortoises

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Snakes

Snake bite treatment training and James Ashe Anti Venom Trust

Bio-Ken Snake Farm are holding the Sixth International Snakebite Seminar. It will be held at Turtle Bay Beach Club in Watamu, Kenya on Saturday 27th of September 2008, starting at 9am. The purpose of this seminar is to expand on the new WHO Snakebite Treatment Guidelines and their relevance in Africa as well as to address the problems relating to a shortage of anti-venom in Africa. The lead speaker will be Professor David Warrell, of Oxford University in England The seminar will also compare detailed and up to date snakebite treatment procedures. This year the registration fee will be Ksh 1,000/= per person. There will be a casual get together to meet and familiarize with others attending in the bar at Hemingway’s Resort on Friday 26th of September at 7:00 p.m. Contact information Royjan Taylor jsnakes@bio-ken.com.

When James Ashe and his wife Sanda first came to set up Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu many years ago, it was a risky business. They were in the middle of nowhere and dealing with many different and highly venomous snakes. Once they were settled they arranged to get hold of some antivenom, which they kept in their fridge. It was a costly, but necessary, addition to their first aid kit. Meanwhile, local people had practically given up taking snakebite victims to hospital as there was no treatment and the mortality rate was very high. The people turned to their traditional witchdoctors for help. But soon the word spread that there was a snake farm in Watamu and bite victims started turning up on the Ashe’s doorstep desperate for help.

No one was ever turned away. If it was a non-venomous bite the victim was reassured and sent on his way. If it was a venomous bite, the victim, the antivenom and the Ashe’s would calmly get into the vehicle and get to the local clinic where Dr. Erulu would be waiting. Depending on many factors, such as the length of time since the bite, most survived.

The majority of snakebites in this area occur when people are out in the fields tending their crops or climbing trees to pick the fruit. These people are poor and there is no way they would be able to afford expensive medications such as antivenom. This became a problem as James and Sanda were treating people at their expense. James even settled an account once by accepting a basket of mangoes as payment for saving the child of a poor farmer!

One evening, James was discussing this with some friends over a beer at Ocean Sports (the local pub). It was decided that a ‘Harambee’ (fund raising) event be held among the local residents to help raise a kitty from which to buy the antivenom. This became unofficially named the ‘Watamu Antivenom Fund’ and was run from an ice cream container! From then on there were triathlons, local fair stalls and many other methods by which the fund got money.

In order to get the antivenom to Watamu the fund relied upon good willed travelers coming from South Africa. Before long though, the price of antivenom went up and, as word spread, more bites were coming in from further a field. At this point James Ashe and Sanda were joined by their long time friend and snake enthusiast Royjan Taylor, who suggested that a registered trust be formed in order to attract more substantial donations, set up a bank account and also to remain transparent for the revenue authorities. Royjan and Sanda were then joined by Melinda Rees and Shafiq Ebrahimjee of Watamu and Professor David Warrel of Oxford University as Trustees. It was agreed by the five Trustees in mid-2004 that it should be named after the man who started it all, THE JAMES ASHE ANTIVENOM TRUST or JAAT.

Since the formation of the trust (JAAT), it has gained huge support and recognition. It now holds a healthy stock of antivenom in a brand new fridge labeled ‘ANTIVENOM ONLY’

Many lives and limbs have been saved, not only by the antivenom, but by the spreading of information on the correct first aid treatment and prevention of snakes. Sanda has written and distributed her ‘Simple Steps’ leaflet (which is available in many languages) all over Kenya. People are encouraged to take the leaflet, photocopy it and distribute it liberally – Click here for an online copy. There is also a more detailed manual for snakebite treatment which is given to doctors providing they do the course with either Sanda or Royjan. It is thanks to JAAT that these manuals can be printed and these lessons given.

Please help us raise funds for snake bite treatment

ALL DONATIONS GO TO THE DIRECT PURCHASE OF ANTIVENOM OR TO THE EDUCATION OF DOCTORS AND MEDICAL PERSONNEL ON THE CORRECT TREATMENT AND MANAGEMENT OF SNAKEBITE.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

On behalf of all of the staff and animals at Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu, Sanda Ashe, my wife Clare and I would like to wish all our friends, family and Blog readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New year for 2008. This was a hard year for us but very rewarding as well. The discovery of the Largest Spitting Cobra Species in the World Naja ashei has to, as James Ashe used to say, take the biscuit! Thank you to everyone for your great help on this especially my good friend Dr. Wolfgang Wuster who did all the hard work.

Picture from Wolfgang Wuster

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32 SNAKES RELEASED

On Friday 14th December we packed the baby snakes born this month at the snake farm, not for export to some unknown owner in Germany or New York, but for release into the best place for them, the African bush.

School holidays are here and it is time to give our children some of our time. We decided to take them to Kulalu, a camp on the Galana River that is in the ADC ranch buffer zone near Tsavo East National Park. The place is heaven on earth for anyone who relishes true wilderness in Africa. We take our Kenya Snake Safari clients there because it also has great catch and release snake areas and so felt our own children should get a chance to see and enjoy such wild and beautiful places as our clients do.

We took 20 baby East African Egg Eating Snakes Dasypeltis medici from two separate hatchings (12 and 8 ) and 11 hatchling Eastern Tiger Snakes Telescopus semiannulatus. We also took a rehabilitated Speckled Sand Snake Psammophis punctulatus that had been injured by a human that tried to kill it for the simple reason that it was a snake. The snake was much better now and ready for release.

Photos by Royjan Taylor
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All snakes were photographed on the 14th of December at Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu when packed for the trip and released on the 15th December near Kulalu Camp, on the ADC – Kulalu Ranch, Tsavo by my children Eric and Joey Taylor and their friends Kyla and Kassi Conway, children of our friends and managers of Kulalu Camp, Nick and Gail Conway.

Photos by Clare Taylor

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It was great to see the children relishing in the idea of releasing baby snakes into the wild and a great opportunity to teach the next generation about the importance of conserving all wildlife even the snakes.

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On the last day I caught a Speckled Bush Snake Philothamnus punctatus for them to hold and release.

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A great trip and a well earned break for all of us. Back to Watamu today and I can’t wait to hear the latest news of snakes at the Snake Farm. Bonface the Foreman confirmed by phone that all is good.


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FILMING THE LARGE SPITTER

We spent Tuesday and Wednesday at Bio-Ken with a National Geographic film crew who had come especially to document the Large Brown Spitting Cobras Naja ashei we have there. It went very well and we did several shots including a venom milking session and comparison with specimens of our Black Necked Spotters Naja nigricollis. It was a tiring couple of days in the heat but well worth it! Thanks to everyone at Wildlife Direct for organising, National Geographic film crew for some fantastic footage and my team at Bio-Ken for all their hard work at such short notice. I would especially like to thank Charles Wright (youth wing member) for being there for us throughout the duration of the filming. I have attached a few pictures below.

The world is still very excited about the new Spitting Cobra and yesterday and today it has been published in the local press as well. This is really good news as it targets readers who are on the ground and that may not have access to the internet.

Photos by Clare Taylor

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THE BIGGEST SPITTING COBRA

This new Large Brown Spitting Cobra Naja ashei has really brought us a lot of attention. I must share with you the three most common questions that we are getting.

1. Really! how long is the largest specimen of this species on record?

2. Who was James Ashe and why did you name the snake after him?

3. What will you (Royjan Taylor) and Bio-Ken do with this money if we give it to you?

This is what I have told everyone.

1. The largest specimen on record of this Spitting Cobra Naja ashei is 9 feet and 2 inches ( works out at almost 2.8 meters). The specimen was caught in 1960 by James Ashe and C.J.P.Ionides,a great friend and mentor of Jim’s. It had killed and swallowed a house cat and got injured in the process but survived. They kept it for three weeks but it unfortunately escaped before they could get it back to the Nairobi Snake Park. Where did they catch it? I do not know as James said he could not remember exactly but it was somewhere along the Kenyan Coast. He said “I think it was somewhere in Kilifi” which is about 45km from where we are in Watamu, Kenya.

Picture from Jim’s stuff given to Royjan (scanned copy)

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2. James Ashe made his name in East African herpetology in the 1960’s while he was Curator of Reptiles at the National Museum of Kenya (then The Croydon Museum) he helped start the Nairobi Snake park and during his time built it up to have a very good collection indeed. He discovered the Mt. Kenya Bush Viper Atheris desaixi, and named it after the collector who found the first specimen, a friend of his called Frank Desaix. James left Kenya, and ran Safari Parks in the USA, later moving on to Oxford University where he worked with insects. His passion still being snakes he came back to Kenya and with his wife Sanda founded Biological Kenya in 1980. This was later shortened to Bio-Ken and started as a collecting centre for reptiles. In 2000 after working with James on and off for many years he offered me the position of Director at Bio-Ken. At that time the Snake Farm was struggling with funds and in his words “I have one foot on a banana skin and the other in the grave. It is just a matter of time for me but what this place and the snakes of East Africa need is a chap with a fire in his belly and a heart in his snakes to make it work. I have chosen you to take on my life long work and I hope you will. I can’t pay you much but if you make it work it is yours”.

I had no choice! This was exactly what I had always dreamed of and Jim had picked me. I talked it over with my wife Clare and we agreed lets just do it. Time passed and I built Bio-Ken up to house one of the largest collections of African snakes in one place anywhere in the world. We at present house 260 snakes represented by 56 different species, all East African. I promised James on his death bed that during my time I would name an East African snake with significance after him. The Large Brown Spitting Cobra “takes the biscuit” as he would say. Naja ashei it is and only last Friday I said to my wife after a long day at work “I really wish I could send Jimmy an email about all this!”. She replied “I think he has already got it!”. I thought to my self what a nice thought to go to sleep on remembering him saying “I’m sure this brown thing is different!”

Picture from Jim’s stuff given to Royjan (scanned copy)

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3. I think this question is obvious. Bio-Ken Snake Farm has been self funded for the entire 27 years it has been in existence. We make our own money through gate entry, Snake shows, filming, lectures, safari guide training and venom production. This brings in about Ksh125,000/=(US$ 2,000). We spend about Ksh 210,000/=(US$3,000) a month on keeping the place going. We all moonlight doing whatever we can to earn extra money to support our families and subsidies the snake farm.We rescue about 450 snakes a year and help treat about 50 snakebite patients a year. I think it is about time we get some funding for what we do. It does not matter how small the amount may be. Would you not agree.

Old picture of Royjan saving a large python in Kilifi that would have been shot. Snake now lives in the wild near Tsavo East National Park, Kenya – eating antelope and not retrievers. (scanned from Jim’s stuff)

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Picture by Prof. Ralf Sauter of snakebite patient

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SPITTING COBRA DAY!

Yes! The world has decided to take notice about saving snakes with the discovery of the Large Brown Spitting Cobra Naja ashei at Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu, Kenya. With the help of a press release that went out on Friday 7th November 2007, in the afternoon through Wildlife direct as a platform, the whole world has been in contact with us about the new Largest Spitting Cobra in the World. This is great news for our conservation work on this species and snakes in general for that matter.

National Geographic have covered the story in great detail on their web site and are sending a team here tomorrow, Tuesday, to take some film footage of this giant snake species. Yahoo carried the story and by Saturday morning I had friends living in as far away places USA, Australia, South Africa and England calling to say that they had just read the news. Last week if you typed Naja ashei in a google search engine you would have got 1-10 of 16 sites covering the species, by Friday night when I went to bed it was 1-10 of 183 by this morning it is a whopping 1-10 of 6,490. This is mind blowing.

I think in all the madness that ensued the best and most appropriate phone call was from an Italian lady that lives in Watamu itself. Tiziana Colis called at about 9:00pm and said I have a big snake in the chicken house eating one of my chickens, please come and save it as the cook wants to kill it and I think it may be one of your new cobras. I got Joseph out of bed and we raced down there to get it in time. Sure enough it was medium sized Large Brown Spitting Cobra Naja ashei. It had killed and started swallowing a half grown chicken. I caught it and Joseph took some pictures with the house owner Ms. Colis. I thanked here for calling us and took the snake to the snake farm. This is an excellent example of conservation working in our area! Pictures below.

I have decided to keep the snake for a few days to get some better pictures before we release it. I will be off to the bush this weekend again so will probably take it there for release.

As you can imagine doing all this takes up an enormous amount of time. I take on work as a building contractor as well as safari guiding as a living to support my family but also to subsidise the snake farm. An ideal scenario would be if, somehow, I could make the work I do with snakes my number one priority and dedicate all my time to that alone. If I was able to get funding to make this possible I feel that I could work wonders in conservation, research, lifesaving teachings and education in this field. We charge a small entrance fee to the farm for tourists, provide snakes and handlers for films and documentaries and do snake shows in the local hotels and this brings us in an income which just about covers the basic costs. Most of the extra structural work done at the farm I have paid for personally or was done by small donations. We need funding to be able to really improve all aspects of our modest establishment and I could dedicate myself wholly to the cause.

Bio-Ken Snake Farm has been running for 27 years so we have the know how, experience and status to warrant this. We have an incredibly dedicated, professional and passionate group of employees at Bio-Ken and I would like to tell them that their loyalty and patience through sometimes very hard times can now finally be rewarded. They are very excited by all this publicity and very proud of what they do.

So here is to Spitting Cobra Day. We have all put the 7th of November 2007 down on our calender as such, I do hope you will do the same!

Come on World……. help me and my team save the snakes.

Photos by Joseph Ojuja

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RIGHT NAME FOR NEW BIG SPITTER

This Snake is truly an awesome snake. It is huge for a cobra in general but it is absolutely massive compared to the other spitting cobras. These guys get really big and a record of a specimen caught by James Ashe in the 1960’s was just over 9ft in length. Please refer to my Blog posted on 30th November 2007 regarding the discovery of the new cobra. We have not yet got one quite so big but some of them have been very big indeed. Below is a picture that I took at Bio-Ken Snake Farm when one of our big specimens in the live collection successfully swallowed a young rabbit. This is amazing. I saw one regurgitate a 4ft Puff Adder Bitis arietans. Anton saw one killed by some Maasai that was swallowing a 5ft Puff Adder. We had one brought into the Snake Farm that had swallowed a two and a half foot long Savannah Monitor Lizard Varanus albigularis. The list goes on and on.

There must be some huge ones still out there and it is now more important than ever before to go out there and look for them. This will need alot of funding but Anton and I with the support of Sanda and the rest of the Bio-Ken team are ready to go and get this done. What I need to do is to find some funding. I want to try and protect this snake as much as I possibly can from the start. The discovery of the Large Brown Spitting Cobra Naja Ashei is of great conservation significance. Although I do not think their numbers in the wild are under any great threat at the moment, the development of areas in their range of distribution, mainly the coastal areas, will obviously have a negative impact on their numbers. A large venomous snake is very often killed on site with no regard to their position in the food chain and other ecological issues. I hope that the publicity of this new find can be directed to the public in such a way that the conservation of its species as well as other snakes can be brought to light and hopefully have a positive impact no mater how small. I believe education is the key to conservation and it starts at any point that your audience has interest in the subject you are addressing.

Today conservation is no longer a good idea, it is a necessity. Although I am a naturalist and conservationist who is truly passionate about all wildlife, my heart goes out to the reptiles that are often very misunderstood, especially the snakes. One cannot conserve one species alone. To be successful in saving our planet’s flora and fauna for future generations we must conserve everything. The snakes are no exception and I have dedicated my life to their cause since my first snake at the age of ten. I hope to continue this until I am old and grey when, hopefully, I can hand my work on to someone younger, more able and as passionate about saving snakes, as was done to me by my good friend the late James Ashe. Saving Snakes is what I live for.

More research work needs to be done on their venom and its implication to snakebite treatment and Antivenom manufacture. Anton and I would really like to get this off the ground. We have the knowledge and experience behind us to do so but lack the financial support we require. If there is anyone out there, who reads our blogs on saving snakes, and has any idea how we can get this moving now is the time to say something. We would really like to hear from you. You can find our email addresses on our web site www.bio-ken.com

Bellow is a series of pictures taken showing that we can do this.

Picture by Bonnie Sare
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Picture by Bonnie Sare

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Picture by Anton Childs
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Picture by Matt Carol

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Picture by Bonnie Sare

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Picture by Bonnie Sare

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Picture by Royjan Taylor
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OFF TO TSAVO TOMORROW

Just a short one today. I am taking eight clients to Tsavo tomorrow and we will be staying at Kulalu camp for two nights. Kulalu is on the bank of the Galana river to the south of Tsavo East national park. The last time I was there with clients, we found several snakes. One of them was a nice large female Puff Adder Bitis arietans in good condition. We caught her to show the guests the enormous fangs that they have, took some photos and then released her back into the wild were we found her. This is such a nice feeling to do without having to relocate the animal as is usually the case with our work.

I will miss my family as usual, Eric is six and a half now and he has got used to it, but Joey is only four and she really does get upset whenever she knows that I am going away. Clare my wife is great and always finds a way to cheer her up until I get back. Usually evidence of nice ice creams and other nice things consumed by them can be seen around when I get back. Hopefully we will find something interesting so that I can give them a good story with a picture or two to go with when I get back.

Bellow is a short unedited video clip of the puff adder from our last trip

Video clip by Bonnie Sare (Snake safari – September 2007)

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GREEN MAMBA SAVED

Today I saved a very nice Green Mamba Dendroaspis angusticeps form the Croze’s house on Plot 31, Watamu.

The house staff were cleaning the house when on the top floor in one of the rooms one, of them spotted the Mamba lying on the dressing table. Fortunately because they know us and the work we do at Bio-Ken they did not kill the snake on the spot. Instead one of the house staff called me on my mobile phone so I went and caught it. It was a very nice female of breeding age in good condition. I paid the guys their reward of Ksh 200/= (about 3 US$) and took the snake back to the Snake Farm. This week it will be released on my way to Tsavo where hopefully it will not come into contact with people again. People are not usually quite so understanding when it comes to poisonous snakes.

I should point out that the Green Mambas in East Africa are a different species to the ones in West Africa. They are known as the Western Green Mamba Dendroaspis viridus

Photo by Royjan Taylor

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Photo by Wolfgang Wuster

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