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Women dedicated to life with snakes

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Four women (from left) Diana Barr, Nancy Njeri, Sanda Ashe, and Winnie Bore have chosen careers working with snakes. PHOTOS | BIO-KEN | RUPI MANGAT

Four women (from left) Diana Barr, Nancy Njeri, Sanda Ashe, and Winnie Bore have chosen careers working with snakes. PHOTOS | BIO-KEN | RUPI MANGAT 

By Rupi Mangat

Posted  Saturday, January 7   2017 at  12:57

In Summary

  • Attending the 10th international snakebite seminar at the Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu held, in Kenya recently, four women who have chosen careers working with snakes narrated why they made the choice.

Handling live venomous snakes is an extremely dangerous profession. One major reason for handling the venomous snakes is to milk them, to extract the venom to produce anti-venom used to treat snakebites.

Without anti-venom, 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. It takes courage and dexterity to extract venom from a snake.

SANDA ASHE

Ashe, now in her 70s, began handling snakes as a teenager. She founded Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu, on Kenya’s North Coast, with her late husband, James Ashe, who had the world’s largest species of spitting cobra, Naja ashei, named after him in 2007 thanks to his persistence in asserting that this snake was different from other spitting cobras.

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

I met Ashe, now retired but still living in the house she shared with her husband and their collection of snakes last December. She is still apt at handling snakes as she relates a recent incident.

“Two nights 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. An aide 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.” The spitting cobra turned out to be a Naja ashei species.

Sanda Ashe at her Bio-Ken serpentarium in Watamu, Kilifi County. PHOTOS | BIO-KEN

Sanda Ashe at her Bio-Ken serpentarium in Watamu, Kilifi County. PHOTOS | BIO-KEN

“Bio-Ken works to improve public acceptance of snakes as an important part of the food chain in nature,” says Ashe. “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.”

DIANA BARR'S WORK DOWN UNDER

Young and dynamic, Diana 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 the safe extraction of venom from snakes for research on anti-venom production and the handling of snakes with the aim of maximising safety for both the handlers and the snakes.

Her most recent work was in India where she worked on improving venom production for use in anti-venom serum production and also training snake handlers in new techniques that can improve the quality and volume of venom from each snake.

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