He feeds spitting cobras, handles puff udders, and helps black mambas reproduce. He also cleans a cage that hosts two 20-inch pythons.
His biggest interest is in the ones with the sting of death; the likes of boom slangs, carpet vipers and black neck spitting cobras. “I tiptoe, grab both heads at the same time. I then hand them over, tail first, to my colleagues who are always on standby,” he says.
Boniface Momanyi, manager of the Bio-Ken Snake Farm lives among the most dangerous snakes in the world. He however says there is nothing under the earth that can make him change jobs. “I love snakes. They are amazing, once you understand them,” he says.
The area of snake-handling that fills him with both excitement and anxiety is one of the main activities upon which the park stands – the extraction of venom. The farm is the only serpentarium in the country licensed to keep snakes for venom extraction. The Reptile Research Centre in Watamu, Kilifi County collects snakes from all over the country.
They get their snakes whenever they receive reports of a snake that has been spotted in Kilifi and neighbouring counties.
“We tell them not to kill any snake. We try our best to capture it and bring it to the farm,” he says. Venom extraction is an intricate process and the handlers know that if they make a mistake, they could die. With one bite, a black mamba can kill an elephant.
A spitting cobra blinds on the spot and the puff udder will get into a defensive S shape, hiss and strike with speed, depositing venom that can kill within minutes. The extractors are aware they are dancing with death so they are extremely careful.
“Everything is calculated. We have to be gentle, because if it bites on the stick used to grab them, it can tumble over and attack,” Momanyi says.
Before extraction, a team of three snake handlers take positions around the cage.
One opens the cage, another grabs the snake, and one grabs the apparatus where the poison will trickle into. They slightly slide the lid and delicately drop a grabber to pick the snake from the neck. At this point, the snake is agitated and already producing venom.
They grab it by the neck and massage the salivary glands for a few minutes. They then place a glass on the fangs and when the snake bites on it, venom is released. With two bites, they say they have harvested enough. To the naked eye, it seems like a few drops, but Momanyi says it is enough to make anti-venom that treats two or more patients.
They gently drop the snake back to its cage at the count of three. Royjan Taylor, a director at the farm explains that the venom is either desiccated, a process where moisture is removed, or refrigerated to prevent enzymes in the venom from being denatured.
The venom is then transported to South Africa and other countries that produce anti-venom because Kenya does not have an anti-venom manufacturing company. They then purchase part of the anti-venom produced to treat snake bite patients in Kenya through the James Ashe anti-venom Trust.
“Poor people are the ones who are likely to be caught in bushes herding cattle or looking for firewood. They cannot afford anti-venom,” he says. Royjan says that unavailability of proper anti-venom is a problem that has dogged Kenya for decades.
“There are very many unscrupulous dealers who sell sub-standard products. Every region should produce its own anti-venom,” he says, adding that most anti-venoms found in hospitals do not meet medical standards and that most hospitals in the country are always out of stock.
Benjamin Menza, a snake bite survivor tells the tale of what unfolds when one is bitten by a snake in Kenya. He was on top of a tree when he felt a sting that left a burning sensation. “I thought it was an ant or a small animal that was hiding under the leaves."
He was wrong. It took a few minutes to realise that he had been bitten by a black mamba, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. His breathing became laboured, the bitten leg was rapidly swelling, and he was getting nauseous. By the time they were getting to a traditional medicine doctor who “specialises in snake bites”, small beads of sweat had formed all over his body.
The traditional doctor rubbed a black stone on the wound. The swelling continued. His parents took him to a nearby hospital, but were told there was no anti-venom. He lost consciousness as they struggled to find treatment.
In panic, his parents took him to the bio park where most snake bite victims are found. Royjan directed them to a hospital in Watamu where they supplied anti-venom specifically for black mamba snakes, and Menza got treated.
“People still believe in traditional cures and religion. Some say if you are bitten, you should go back to the same snake so that you get bitten again,” Royjan says.
The journey to finding effective anti-venoms in Kenya got more complex when Sanofi in South Africa that was manufacturing Fav Afrique – the only anti-venom proven by World Health Organisation to be safe for treating bites from various sub-Saharan snakes – stopped production.
While pulling out of the market in 2010, the company said high manufacturing costs led them to stop production, leaving Kenya to depend on Asian countries for supply of anti-venoms.