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How infighting and corruption allegations killed snake park

WESTERN
By Nathan Ochunge | June 10th 2021

The establishment of Kakamega Snake Park Conservancy was touted as a game-changer in efforts to conserve the local tropical rainforest. The project, started in the early 90s by a local community-based organisation, was also aimed at empowering residents economically.

Other than generating revenue from tourists who visited the park, members of the local community were expected to play various roles to ensure the success of the venture for which they were paid. 

Indeed, the conservancy, next to Kakamega Forest, was one of a kind in the larger Western region and attracted visitors from far and wide.

It was initiated by Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (Keep), a Community-Based Organisation (CBO) involved in the conservation of Kakamega Forest.

However, the park’s glory lasted only until 2009 when things started going south. Leadership wrangles erupted within Keep and allegations of corruption among officials also rocked the organisation. Reports indicated that the officials were split into two factions and the biggest was for control of resources, including donor funds. 

Benjamin Okalo, Kakamega snakes park conservancy chairman (in red T-shirt) narrates how the cages hosted snakes at Kakamega snakes park yesterday. Local Politics resulted to transfer of all the snakes leaving the place deserted. [Mumo Munuve, Standard]

Strategically located at Isecheno on the edges of Kakamega tropical rainforest, the park attracted tourists and students who wanted to catch a glimpse of the most venomous snakes caged at the conservancy. Researchers too frequented the park.

Establishment of the park cost Keep close to Sh20 million, according to its former officials.

Some of the rare species of snakes at the park were the Forest Cobra, Black-lipped Cobra, Jameson’s Mamba, Green Bush Viper, Rhinoceros-horned Viper, Gaboon Viper (which kills other snakes), Gold’s Cobra and Kaimosi Blind Snake. Others are African Rock python and the Boomslang Snake.

The group also kept ostriches, the Nile crocodile, monitor lizards and tortoise. It also had a fish aquarium.

As the place attracted more visitors, Keep went ahead to establish a resort and conference facilities to meet the ever-increasing demands.

Students would pay between Sh50 and Sh100 while tourists would part with Sh5,000 to access the snake park. They paid more for meals and drinks.

The park generated enough revenue and created over 500 jobs within the first six months when it realised profits in excess of Sh12.6 million, according to Mr Benjamin Okalo, who was then the chairman of the conservancy.

Part of the profits realised were used to sponsor students to further their studies in the US, China and India. Some of the money went towards improving infrastructure in local schools.

Okalo told The Standard that they also used part of the profits to purchase a four-acre that was meant to house a three-star hotel, swimming pool and a conference centre.

The snake park was thriving to the extent Keep officials were considering establishing a research centre.

However, these plans crumbled due to infighting and corruption allegations.

Investigations by The Standard established that as the officials fought, more snake species were added into the park, which saw its management run into problems with Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS).

In a letter dated August 13, 2012, addressed to Okalo and authored by Nyibule Ojwang, the then Warden Incharge of Kakamega Forest National Reserve, KWS accuses the park’s management of keeping snakes illegally.

However, Okalo insisted that he was licensed by KWS to keep the snakes even though he did not produce the license.

Rose Malenya, the current KWS Warden In charge of Kakamega Forest said the Kakamega Conservancy was licensed to keep ostriches and crocodiles but not snakes.

 Mr Patrick Musama is said to have taken over as acting chairman at the conservancy after Okalo’s reported dismissal.

When reached for comment, Musama confirmed he wrote to KWS asking the agency to take away the crocodiles so they don’t starve to death.

Okalo insists that he followed due process in getting the snakes.  

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