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‘Snakes on a plain’: reducing the dangers of snakebites for rangers on the savannah

Most of us will have that one thing that we fear most. Some are terrified of holes in crumpets (Trypophobia) or bananas (Bananaphobia – yes, this is real), whilst others (famously Indiana Jones), perhaps more commonly, cannot stand snakes (Ophidiophobia). However, regardless of how they make you feel, these scaly critters are essential predators of disease-carrying agricultural pests, biting a person only if they feel threatened. Having kept reptiles myself for almost 12 years, I have found them not to be the soulless, evil, cold creatures usually conveyed, but curious, intelligent, and with their own temperaments. But stories (true, false, and exaggerated) abound, contributing to the snake’s reputation and subsequent persecution. In combination with habitat loss and disease, many species today face extinction.

Various species, however, have the potential to be extremely dangerous if one is unfortunate enough to be bitten. A bite from Africa’s venomous black mamba, for example, will lead to death within hours if left untreated. In Kenya, more than 1,000 people die from snakebites every year, making them responsible for more than 43% of all human-wildlife-related deaths. Many victims are unable or unwilling to go to hospital and, if they do, staff are often insufficiently trained or antivenom is simply unavailable. Then there is the cost. A single vial can cost US $60 and, with up to 15 vials needed for one black mamba bite, treatment can cost US $900.

With expense being a sizeable barrier and the lack of widespread availability of antivenom, improving the current situation is not an easy feat. However, organisations and individuals with such expertise and ambitions do exist. The Taylor Ashe Antivenom Foundation (TAAF) is one such organisation, with the aim of reducing snakebite deaths and disabilities. A local organisation, TAAF has the benefit of being run by Kenyans, putting it in the prime position of understanding the key socio-cultural issues that further complicate tackling snakebites.

The Foundation is a primary supporter of East African Venom Supplies, a Snake Farm in Watamu, Kenya that was founded by the late James Ashe and his wife, Sanda in 1980. After their passing, the Farm was managed by Royjan Taylor, James’s protégé, before he too sadly passed away in 2019. After years of hard work by these three and their colleagues, the Farm has become a highly respected institution. Its milking facility and venom-collection laboratory are now in full operation, providing venom from various species for research to help overcome the current crisis.

However, preventing direct contact between snakes and humans in the first place is a top priority and education is also a major focus of TAAF. Experienced with all of Kenya’s native snake species, the Foundation has worked hard to train individuals about what to do if they encounter them. The courses provided cover topics such as supervised snake handling, what to do if you encounter a snake, and identification. With different snake species displaying a variety of temperaments, behaviours, and venom types (hemotoxic, neurotoxic, cytotoxic etc), being able to determine the best approaches when dealing with each species or its bite is essential.

Working for long periods on Kenya’s grassy plains, wildlife rangers have a high chance of encountering a venomous snake, either in camp or out in the bush. Often far from medical help, getting bitten in these areas could be life-threatening. It is therefore vital that rangers are aware of the best ways to deal with these reptiles without putting themselves or the snake at risk.

TAAF, with the assistance of ForRangers, has been providing training workshops for rangers. Often full of excitement, staff have noted the humour shown between the rangers – particularly when the snake boxes are first brought out. Some rangers remain seated whilst others bolt to the back of the room. Once the courses are over, TAAF continues its support. Rangers have the personal numbers of the Farm’s staff, allowing them to communicate easily with the team if there has been an issue or to share stories about how they dealt with a snake safely thanks to the training sessions.

With the courses already showing many signs of success, TAAF has other plans in the pipeline, hoping to address other areas of Kenya where incidents of human-snake conflict are common.

Essential work such as this would not be possible without the generosity of donors such as those who have donated to ForRangers. With the incredible people at TAAF able to continue their work, we can help to minimise this conflict, contributing to a future where deaths and injuries from snakebites, for snakes, rangers and the wider public, are ‘hiss-tory’. Thank you.


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