Snakes don’t get much from biting you

Throughout the African continent, there exists a pervasive fear of snakes, the ultimate symbol of evil. If you are religious, you may say it all started at the garden of Eden, when God cursed the snake for tempting Eve. As Genesis 3:15 states ‘And I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers, he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.’

But Sanda Ashe, the co-founder of the Bio-snake farm in Watamu, believes that throughout history, the snake has been unnecessarily vilified. She has devoted her life to studying snakes and educating people about them, and believes the scariest thing about them is what people are only too willing to believe they’ll do harm.

  Royjan Taylor and Sanda Ashe

Royjan Taylor and Sanda Ashe

‘Snakes rarely seek a human being to attack. They attack only when they feel threatened, as self-defense,’ Sanda said.

For Ashe, the journey began in childhood, when her love for non-human creatures took hold.

Born in Dar-es-Salaam, Ashe eventually moved to Kenya for Secondary school. As a young girl, she rescued birds, small animals and harmless snakes as a hobby. ‘I kept pestering a friend for advice on how to take care of these animals. Then he referred me to James Ashe who knew a lot about reptile husbandry and had his own snake collection,’ Sanda said. The two later worked together, James as curator of reptiles at the now National museums of Kenya and Sanda as his assistant. James was offered work in America at a Safari park and that is where they married.

They later moved to Oxford University in the UK, where James breed water bugs for research in the Zoology department while Sanda worked in the primate unit. After a while though, James wanted to start a small business to supply small quantities of invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians for research in reputable research facilities. He itched to return to East Africa and Sanda was happy to return to her birthplace.

Together, they started the Biological suppliers of Kenya, which they shortened to Bio-Ken. However, their original business idea did not work. It proved not only difficult but controversial to deal with export of animals. Despite abandoning its initial aim, they retained the name Bio-Ken, opened to the public and became a useful base for scientists doing research. Injured animals were brought to them and their old love of caring for wild animals fueled a speedy recovery for the creatures.

Tourists heard about the ‘funny snake man of Watamu’ and came to see the farm. People in the region learned that they kept some antivenom for themselves and sought help when they were bitten by snakes. The Ashe’s helped all who came and soon found they needed to keep more that their normal supply of antivenom. The couple had no children but both families and James Ashe’s grown children were always supportive of them pursuing their life-long dream. Their friends held parties and other events to raise funds to purchase extra antivenom.

In the small area that is the Bio-Ken snake farm, various snakes, both venomous and non-venomous are kept alongside a few chameleons, tortoises, monitor lizards and a crocodile. The birds and rodents the reptiles feed on are also reared within the farm. There is a collection of rare reference texts on reptiles from Africa as well as a collection of pickled snake samples. The Bio-Ken snake farm employs seven staff members whose duties are to feed the animals, keep the cages clean, snake catching and showing visitors around the collection.

Anyone within the Watamu region with a snake problem in their homes or a venomous snake in their shamba, can call the Bio-Ken snake farm staff to catch the reptile and remove it from the premises. They are then either released in the wild, housed within the farm or if they are special and rare, shared with the National Museums of Kenya.

Rodents are the favorite food of many types of snake, which means that snakes are valuable in helping to control rats and mice that invade our homes, carry diseases and contaminate harvests.  Kenya is home to about 127 different snake species. Of these only 18 have caused human fatalities and only another 6 could kill you. Another 10 could cause you a lot of pain and the remaining 93 or so, are neither venomous nor dangerous. ‘We humans need to learn to live in peaceful co-existence with snakes. They are an essential part of our ecosystem and keep the number of rodents down. They are not our enemies. We need them,’ Sanda Ashe says.

However, snakebite remains one of the important neglected diseases of the tropics. Worldwide, snake bite kills about 100,000 people a year. Although snake bite is not a multi-million killer disease like pneumonia, of those that survive, many are left deformed, without toes, fingers or even whole limbs.

How do snakes cause so much harm? Snake venoms usually affect the blood and/or the central nervous system as well as causing local tissue reactions at the site of the bite. Snake venom that affects the blood acts in various ways to stop blood from clotting , if not treated, a patient can bleed internally and externally, to death. Neurotoxic effect of the venom leads to paralysis starting with the drooping of the upper eye lids then slowly descending to the whole body, ending in a generalised paralysis. At the site of the bite, the venom causes the tissues to die, leaving doctors with no option but to remove the dead tissue which can cause serious deformities and worse still amputation of whole limbs.

According to Professor David Warrell, Emeritus Professor of Tropical medicine at the University of Oxford and a renown expert in snakebite, availability of good treatment would heavily reduce death rates. ‘The greatest problem in Africa is that most hospitals will not have antivenoms and secondly, most of the antivenoms available are not appropriate and therefore not effective. An example is Bharat®, an anti-venom marketed for the African market, which is manufactured using venoms of Asian snakes. It’s very confusing, the antivenom is recommended for bites by cobra, saw-scale viper. You think you are dealing with the same snakes but you are not. Although they have the same name, these are snakes from different continents and the antivenom may not work’, said Professor Warrell.

But Bio-ken is doing what it can to reduce the burden of mortality due to snake bite. Bio-Ken snake farm offers free antivenoms to doctors within the coastal region as well as advice on how the antivenom is to be used. Snake antivenoms are themselves dangerous drugs that should only be used when absolutely necessary within a hospital facility. The Malindi District hospital has had a long-term relationship with the snake farm which greatly assists the community.

After the death of James Ashe in 2004, a charity ‘The James Ashe Antivenom Trust’ was formed by Royjan Taylor, a director at the farm. The trust relies on donors to fund provision of antivenom that is produced in West Africa and South Africa. The trust assists in raising public awareness and understanding about snakes. Sanda has published a pamphlet which also appears in Kiswahili titled ‘SIMPLE STEPS TO ASSIST A SNAKE BITE PATIENT’ which they distribute for free and are happy for people to photocopy and spread. She believes that ignorance about snake bites leads to most of the deaths.

‘So many people are so scared of snakes for no good reason. Once people know more about snake bite, it will be like any other medical problem. Like malaria or measles. They are horrible diseases and we could die from them but we understand them, so they don’t terrify us,’ Sanda Ashe says. Her dream is to have children in their last years at Primary school given at least one lesson on snake bite first aid, after which they are given the pamphlet to take home. ‘Knowledge is power over fear,’ Sanda says. She believes that in the same way that we all now know that bednets protect from frequent malaria attacks, it can also be known that there are ways to protect oneself against snake bite and if bitten, means to prevent serious injury or death.

To assist in the treatment of snake bite, the WHO, Afro region based in Brazzaville, have recently published some snake bite management guidelines. These are available free on line and Professor Warrell hopes that more medical practitioners will refer to them. Most of all, he wishes that the international community would fund effective antivenoms for Africa as well as provision of knowledge of their efficient use.