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Curiosity, debate hot up as many look into snake farming for profit

The herpetologist and director of Bio-Ken Snake Farm milk the venom of a freshly caught puff adder in Watamu, Kilifi County. [AP]

Many people are afraid of snakes and would rather steer clear of the creatures or kill them on sight.

It is no wonder Kenyans were intrigued by presidential candidate Prof George Wajackoya’s pledge to mainstream and capitalise on snake farming.   

Daniel Mitei, a public programmes officer at the National Museums of Kenya, during World Snake Day marked on July 16, laughed at Wajackoya’s claim that snake farming is a new venture in Kenya. 

“We’ve been having snake farms for a long time. Jonathan Leakey had one, and there are more along the coast and eastern Kenya,” said Mitei.

In the past few weeks, curiousity and debate have intensified following Wajackoyah’s views about snake farming. According to Kenya Wildlife Service, there are currently more than 50 licensed snake farms in Kenya while more applicants for licenses are awaiting approval. 

“The demand for snake rearing has gone up recently. Wajackoya’s manifesto has spiked Kenyans’ curiosity, necessitating the KWS to include a webpage on the application process of snake farms,” says Paul Jinaro, a KWS communication official.  Makau Kioko, 58, is the proprietor of the Kioko Snake Ventures in Kitui. Many such farms make money primarily from charging tourists who want to learn about snakes or see them up close. 

On a good day, Kioko’s enterprise, sitting on a five-acre farm, attracts approximately 300 visitors. Foreigners pay an entrance fee of Sh1,000 while locals pay Sh300.

Some like David Musyoka who rears over 200 snakes at his farm in Meru, export snakes to pet shops and zoos in Germany, UK, US, and other overseas countries where a standard snake fetches more than Sh10,000.

China, he says, is also an emerging market. For thousands of years, snakes have been considered medicinal in China, Japan, and other Asian countries, where people drink snake wine made from snake-based ingredients and swallow snake supplements for nutritional purposes. 

It is not always lucrative and smooth at the snake farms. Kioko lost an employee and had another amputated after a snake bite, but he remains undeterred. 

All businesses have risks, he says. The snake farmer now takes extra measures to ensure death and injuries do not happen.  

“I’m used to handling snakes. I ensure I have the upper hand while handling them,” says Makau Kioko, who has a diploma in Reptile Management. BioKen Snake Farm in Watamu allows visitors to watch staff milk venom from snakes’ fangs. The firm then exports it to South Africa to make anti-venom for local communities.

Dr Patrick Malonza, head of the herpetology section of the Zoology department at the National Museums of Kenya says there’s no anti-venom manufacturing firm in Kenya. “The process is complex and expensive,” he says.  

According to Dr Malonza once the venom has been harvested, it should be released into the wild.  Baringo-based epidemiologist and researcher Dr Robert Rono says a single anti-venom vial costs between Sh4,500 and Sh20,000, depending on the snake bite and efficacy of the anti-venom.

“Snakes often interact with humans accidentally. Since low-income families often lack proper vegetation clearance around their homes, sleep on the floor, and have low-quality housing, snakes can easily access their space,” says Rono.

The epidemiologist says they are exploring ways of lowering the cost of the anti-venom. Depending on the type of snake, the venom falls into three key categories; neurotoxic, cytotoxic and hemotoxic.

Neurotoxic causes paralysis, convulsions and respiratory complications. Cytotoxic leads to severe pain, swelling and death of tissue while hemotoxic causes swelling, internal bleeding and tissue damage.