Women dedicated to life with snakes

Friday January 06 2017
snake women

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

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.


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

“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.”


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.

Brought up in a small village in Yorkshire, northern England, she was drawn to snakes like a moth to light. She says she could not resist the unblinking eyes, flicking tongue and incredible speed and agility.

“Snakes are shrouded in superstition, legend and myth and I was fascinated by this. I was equally in awe of their ability to kill a person with a single bite,” she says.

While in her 20s, she backpacked around Australia for a year, living with Aborigines, learning about the wild animals on the continent including snakes. She met the herpetologist and toxinologist David Williams, an international snakebite expert. Within a few weeks, she was handling some of Australia’s most venomous snakes and performing venom extractions under his expert training.

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

Her favourite snake 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.

A 'reportable disease'

“In Africa alone,” she says, “it is estimated that 20,000-30,000 people die from fatal snakebites annually, with thousands more permanently disabled, disfigured, suffering loss of limbs, blindness and psychological trauma.”

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

“Early treatment with effective anti-venom can save lives and limbs,” insists Barr. “This is why it is very important to work and network with local people — experts on the 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.”


Diana Barr keeping a keen eye on her students as they perform venom extraction from a Papuan taipan under her instruction at the Charles Campbell Toxinology Centre in Papua New Guinea. PHOTO | COURTESY OF DIANA BARR

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 Organisation as essential medicines — drugs that all citizens should have access to.

“Making snakebites 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 understand the full extent and complexities of the problem, and then develop strategies for effective long term solutions.”

In Kenya and most developing countries, a snakebite is not a reportable disease, (considered to be of great public health importance and must therefore be reported to local and national health authorities for action).

Policy makers skip meetings

According to Barr, snakebite seminars like the one organised annually by Bio-Ken bring together experts from Africa and overseas to share knowledge and experience, plan strategies and to be the voice of snakebite victims so that snakebites do not become forgotten ailments.

Unfortunately, policy makers who have the power to change things skip the seminar every year despite being invited.

Public awareness and working with communities has far reaching impact, Barr says. “In Papua New Guinea for example, approximately 1,000 people used to die from snakebites 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 the country took the initiative by introducing health and safety regulations requiring all plantation workers to wear rubber boots. The incidence of snake envenomation on the plantation dropped from 50 workers per year, to zero.”

Do you love snakes?

For anyone who wants to become a snake handler, Barr says they have to have a genuine love for 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 from books and practical courses, but skills and wisdom are acquired over 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.

“I must stress here that anyone who works with venomous snakes must be fully aware of the consequences of a bite and subsequent envenomation. Even professional snake handlers die from snakebites every day. It is an extremely dangerous occupation, especially when your life is often in the hands of co-workers and vice versa.

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


Watching snake bite victims succumb to snakebites led Winnie Bore to become an activist and founded 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 the region.

“There was a man from Tharaka-Nithi (in eastern central Kenya) 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 I had to help communities deal with snakebites.


Winnie Bore of SnakebiteKenya at Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu, Kilifi County. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

“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.”


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 mambas on her own. Bio-Ken offers a three-year programme on how to catch, handle and milk snakes.

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

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


Nancy Njeri, right and Kyle Buster, snake handlers at Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu, Kilifi County. PHOTO | RUPI MANGAT

If you come face to face with a venomous snake, says 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 licensed snake rescuer. A reputable snake rescuer will take whatever action is in the best interests of the snake and the community.