Category Archives: 6. Elapidae – COBRAS and MAMBAS

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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Royjan Milking Big Naja ashei.jpg


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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
Royjan and Alex of Bio-Ken with sub-adult Large Brown Spitting Cobra.JPG

Picture by Bonnie Sare

Head Shot of new Naja ashei.JPG

Picture by Anton Childs
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Picture by Matt Carol

Large Brown Spitting Cobra caught with Joseph in the Jimba cave - Watamu.JPG

Picture by Bonnie Sare

Royjan and Bonface catching small Spitting Cobra - New species.JPG

Picture by Bonnie Sare

Royjan and Bonface with New Spitting Cobra in hand.JPG

Picture by Royjan Taylor
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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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NEW COBRA FOUND IN WATAMU

YES! Finally we are here.

About four years ago we contacted Dr. Wolfgang Wuster a lecturer at the University of Bangor in Wales about a Cobra we had suspected to be different. Dr. Wuster had just concluded a paper on a new species from Sudan the Nubian Spitting Cobra Naja nubia which was previously recorded as a colour phase of the Red Spitting Cobra Naja pallida which is found in Kenya. Being recommended highly as really the man to talk to about Cobras, Anton, Sanda and I decided to get the ball rolling.

According to the most concise reference book on East African Snakes ‘ A Field Guide to the Reptiles of East Africa’, by Stephen Spawls, Kim Howell, Robert Drewes and James Ashe – 2002, our snake was recorded as a brown colour phase of the Black Necked Spitting Cobra Naja nigricollis. James Ashe who founded Bio-Ken in 1980 had for many years suspected that the large brown spitting cobras along the coast may be different, and after working with them for many years we agreed with him. The issue was how do we prove it.

We managed to prove the difference by sending blood and tissue samples to Dr. Wolfgang Wuster. He was so excited at what he found from what we sent him that he came out and spent some time at Bio-Ken taking more samples for DNA analysis as well as taking reference photos and descriptive notes. He selected a specimen that I had caught trying to break into our chicken house a in 2002 (our ref BK-10030) and after taking pictures it was euthanized so as to have a holotype that was preserved. The holotype is now at the National Museum in Nairobi under Reference number NMK S/3993. It has taken about three years to prepare the paper and get it published. It has now finally been published by Wolfgang Wuster and another great snake man in Africa Donald Broadley. Well done guys. The Paper can be viewed by clicking on the following link http://www.mapress.com/zootaxa/2007f/zt01532p068.pdf

James Ashe died in 2004 and in memory of him it was agreed that the snake should be named after him. It was thus named Ashe’s Spitting Cobra Naja Ashei which is a great honer for him. We however still call it by the common name that he used the Large Brown Spitting Cobra.

This is a very big Cobra indeed and is possibly the Largest in Spitting Cobra found any where in the World. We also know that it is responsible for very serious snake bite cases in our area. During the work we did with Wolfgang in 2004 for this snake I milked a specimen which gave a woping 6.2ml of liquid venom, weighing 7.1g. possibly one of the largest venom yields milked from any one snake at any one milking anywhere in the world. Some of our Larger specimens at Bio-Ken are nearly eight feet long. This is massive and so we would advise people to be most careful if one is seen in the wild. Do not approach it unless you really have the experience to do so.

Lastly I’d like to say a good clap of hands to all members of the team involved. We hope Jimmy, that you approve from wherever you are, and to the world we say, on behalf of all of us, may we introduce you Naja Ashei.

Photo by Wolfgang Wuster
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Photo by Wolfgang Wuster

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Photo by Wolfgang Wuster

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Photo by Wolfgang Wuster

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Photo by Danie Theron
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HELPING A SICK MAMBA

Yesterday we noticed that one of our Black Mambas Dendroaspis polylepis was still sick. It has been sick for a few days now. It developed an infection in the mouth associated with Mouth Rot (Necrotic stomatitis). The Bio-Ken team removed it from its cage and Sanda Ashe, my fellow Director, gave it a Oxytetracycline injection, about 0.5 ml sub-cutaneously. The mamba was returned to its cage and is looking much better this morning.

Bio-Ken holds about 46 Black Mambas in its milking program. The snakes are milked every three weeks and the venom is dessicated and stored. The Venom is then moved on to make antivenom and is also used in medical research both of which end up saving peoples lives. The method of keeping the Mamba’s at Bio-Ken was instigated by the late James Ashe who founded Bio-Ken in 1980. The system has been improved over the years and our oldest Mamba’s have been with us for about 18 years now.

Mambas are difficult to keep in captivity as they are very nervous and especially Black Mambas, some never settle down. About 3 in every 5 collected are like this so we release the Mambas that don’t settle after six weeks of trying. Of coarse a snake in the wild is better than in a cage, but antivenom is a necessity and almost all the snakes are collected from where they are causing a problem. If we did not remove these snakes they would certainly be killed.

Photo by Wolfgang Wuster

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Photo by Royjan Taylor

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It would be good to note that availability of good Antivenom and information on treatment can be obtained through ” The James Ashe Antivenom Trust” commonly known as JAAT.


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