Parts of Baringo County in Kenya’s Rift Valley are harsh terrain and crawling with snakes.
In a village appropriately named ‘’Kampi ya Samaki’’ (the fishing camp) near Lake Baringo, lived two men, different in every way but who shared a fascination with snakes. They worked together with snakes; catching them for their venom and releasing them or caging them for research and for exhibition.
It was therefore not bizarre that they died 12 days apart. Both in their 80s when they died, Jonathan Leakey on July 12, 2021 and Nankorot Ewoi aka Dr William on June 30, 2021, they are considered the fathers of snake hunting and handling in Baringo.
While Leakey was cremated in Nairobi on July 28 at a private family ceremony, the burial of Ewoi, attracted media attention when two days later and with the grave mound still fresh, a wild six-foot long python slithered into the family compound and went to his grave, and then to his house. The family caught the incident on mobile phone and were only too happy to explain that it was a show of respect to the departed snakeman, from a creature he loved and depended on for his livelihood. The snake was calm despite family members milling around it.
When I visited Baringo a week ago, I visited Mzee Ewoi’s home in Kampi ya Samaki. I met his youngest son, Jonathan. He is named after the late Leakey, his father’s long-time employer and mentor.
“You will find a carpet viper under one out of every 10 rocks,” said the young Ewoi, as I walk cautiously behind him.
All around us, the ground is bare and baked red by the sun, strewn with rocks and desert plants that have adapted to the intense heat of the arid lands. It stretches north into the deserts of Kenya. Yet, a few feet away is the freshwater Lake Baringo. It is now more of a curse than a blessing after it started rising way back in 2010, until now it has submerged whole villages, tourist hotels, homes, hospitals, schools and even Leakey’s lake shore home. Only tarmac roads disappearing into the water mark where life once thrived.
We’re near the urban centre, Kampi ya Samaki where the two snakemen lived for most of their adult lives. Suddenly there’s a shout. Young Ewoi picks up a rock to find a foot-long carpet viper. The snake was perfectly camouflaged. My untrained eye didn’t see it until it started to slither away in tight s-curves, its scales making a sawing sound as they rubbed against each other.
Calmly, the young Ewoi gently presses the serpent’s head to the ground with a stick and then picks it up gently, firmly holding the viper’s head between his fingers. The venom from the fangs of this beautifully-patterned viper is deadly. The least of its toxic effects is a lost limb or destroyed body tissue.
The scientific name for the carpet viper of Baringo is Echis pyramidum leakeyi, in honour of Jonathan Leakey, and its also known as Leakey’s saw-scaled viper. It is the most common snake found in this harsh environment.
Undisturbed, it lies harmless under rocks, but strikes fast with its deadly bite when disturbed.
Jonathan Leakey, the son of Louis and Mary Leakey, the famous fossil finding family, chose to chase after snakes and for decades supplied snake venoms of East African snakes to South African and US companies for the manufacture of anti-venom. His younger brother, the conservationist Richard and his wife, Maeve, and daughter Louise Leakey followed the family “trade.”
However, Jonathan did have a brief stint in fossil finding. At the age of 20, in 1960, Jonathan found the fossil remains of a 10-year-old child of a Homo habilis in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, and which was nicknamed “Jonny’s child.”
But it was not enough to interest young Jonathan. In an interview, he said that there were enough family members in palaeontology and since he had always liked snakes, he decided to see if he could do something with them.
He established the Nairobi Snake Park in 1961 and served as its first curator. He then set up his own snake farm in Baringo in the 1970s.
Run in with the law
“In 1990, my father started working for Jonathan Leakey,” recounts young Ewoi. “He got interested in snakes, catching them for Jonathan. When my father retired in 2001, he then opened his own snake farm in Baringo.”
But by then, Leakey had shut down his snake farm to concentrate on other business ventures. “He was always trying new ventures,” chimed in my host, Dr Bonnie Dunbar of Ol Kokwe island on Lake Baringo. “He tried fish farming, growing water melons and spirulina for export and so much more in this harsh environment. He knew a lot.”
According to young Ewoi, Leakey transferred his snake farm licence to his father, and it was valid for another 15 years. Unfortunately, according to Ewoi, in 2003, the authorities confiscated his father’s snake collection and took them to the new snake park, citing that the seasoned snake handler was operating illegally, and even jailed him for nine days.
Standing at the fresh grave of the legendary snake handler Ewoi, marked with a simple cross, his son says, “My father was the best snake handler around. We are very upset because we are the ones who know how to catch and handle snakes, yet we are ignored. The snakes at the snake park are not properly handled and are in poorly designed cages. Right now in Baringo, there are no snake handlers.”
We stroll around the simple Ewoi homestead, the houses made of wattle and mud. We come across Esther Ewoi, the ‘’Dr’s’’ widow breaking rocks to make chippings to sell to builders. She is respected in her own right for her ability to treat snake bites with the “black stone,” but which is only apparently effective for the non-venomous kind.
A few kilometres down the road, is a clinic opposite the government-run snake park. The clinical officer rummages through the messy store looking for the anti-snake venom but doesn’t find it. The irony is lost on everyone.
“We have very few cases of snake bites here,” says the clinical officer defensively. Victims of lethal snake bite victims are transferred to the hospital in Marigat, 20 kilometres away. Venom from a carpet viper works faster than that.
A Legacy to honour
“Everybody in Baringo knew Leakey,” says Jackson Komen, the county warden I meet at the snake park. “We’ve lost an icon, a conservationist, a pioneer in snake farming. He trained all these people here how to handle snakes.”
Komen acknowledges that snake bites is a neglected disease. Most snake bites require specific anti-venom depending on the type of snake. He said the county recorded 300 snake bites victims a month. “We have massive cases of amputation and disability from snake bites,” he said, contradicting the clinical officer.
Komen said the government has ear-marked Ksh17 million for the construction of a modern snake farm in conjunction with the Kenya Medical Research Institute. It will be a collection centre for ‘’milking’’ snakes for their venom, and will rely on licensed snake handlers, hopefully like the late Mzee Ewoi’s sons.
The people of Kampi ya Samaki mourn the snake men. “Jonathan was a game changer here,” said John Lee who worked for Leakey in the 1970s. “People used to kill snakes as soon as they saw one, venomous or not. But once they found out that Leakey paid for spotting snakes, they would report to us the location of the snake and Leakey would send his snake handlers to retrieve them.”
Moses Chebii, a chief in Baringo. “He supported schools and the hospital, paid school fees for a number of pupils, built the airstrip and donated food to needy families. He will be missed.”