Friday, August 7, 2009

Rav 4

Big Papa

5' 2" Nile Monitor Lizard, caught in Englesha Rainforest

July 21, 2009- From my bio-ken journal

July 21, 2009 Entry #18

Today, Steve Spawls (One of the most renowned herpetologists on East Africa in the world, who moved into my house in watamu for a week with me!), Ferry, Dengris and I went out on a collecting expedition with the goal of finding a Dendroaspis angusticeps, a.k.a. Green Mamba. We left early in the morning and went to a shamba owned by a friend of Ferry’s, which turned out to be a massive nursery full of trees, shrubs, and thick bush- perfect mamba territory. Dengris was the first to spot anything, which turned out to be a female Dyspholidus typus (boomslang, a rear-fanged snake with one of the nastiest venoms around that causes a slow and painful death due to massive internal bleeding) with a Flap-necked chameleon hanging out of its mouth- very cool. We caught the snake which then dropped the chameleon, and bagged it up, then the search continued. I spotted the next snake which appeared to be a green mamba up a tree, but by the time we all got into position and up the tree to get it the snake had disappeared into the thick foliage of the canopy. Disappointed, but not discouraged, we continued our search. Ferry spotted the next snake high up a tree, which was another green mamba, and this snake couldn’t elude him! He got the snake down and bagged it, and our target species was successfully nabbed! The rain started to come down thick and heavy, and although we persisted throughout the storm we ended up soaked and empty handed for the next hour’s work. We were about to head off to another shamba when Ferry got a snake call at a village near Gede, so we all piled into Steve’s car and shot off to see what snake awaited our arrival. When we got there I went over to the villagers and the pointed to a pile of palm leaves saying that a python was underneath, and when I pulled back the leaves a large puff adder, not a python, was sitting there! Good thing they called for assistance instead of trying to deal with the snake as a python. I picked up the snake behind the head, and the whole village crowded around asking to take pictures with me and the snake and cheering! Photos were taken, I bagged the snake with Steve, and we went off again. No more finds for the morning but it was a seriously successful expedition by all accounts.

Photos of the puff adder at Gede:

July 16, 2009- From my bio-ken journal

July 16,, 2009 Entry #14

Spent the past two days doing a good deal of mamba work and other various tasks around the snake park with Ferry. But today was a day I was looking very much forwards too- the day I took on a Naja Ashei (world's largest species of spitting cobra) in the pit alone. Although I had been doing a lot of work with cobras alongside Ferry, I had yet to attempt to take one behind the head by myself, and Sanda decided the best way to teach it would be to release a medium-sized Ashei in the pit for me to capture, bag once, and box once. I spent a good deal of time the day before practicing my bagging method on sand snakes and beaked snakes, and I felt I was ready to take on the cobra. Early on in the morning I got into the pit, Sanda and Ferry came by to release the snake and assist if necessary while Joseph worked the camera. As the snake was dropped into the pit, I faced it, goggles on, tongs in hand, slightly nervous but ready to go! After a minute or so of letting it cruise around the pit in circles I approached it, tonged it, and pulled the snake out into the open. The snake must have drenched me in at least 6-8 good jets of venom to the face and mouth. With my right hand I maneuvered a second pair of tongs to the base of the neck, pinned it, and gripped it firmly behind the head in my other hand- but what a strong snake! I had total control of the snake and was feeling great until the time came to attempt bagging it- not easy with a bag slightly small for the size of the snake, a powerful wriggling cobra, and the difficult maneuver of switching the snake from one hand to another without allowing it to slip out and stick me with a fang. I managed to make the swap alright, but the snake began to twist its head violently and wrapped its body all up my arm once it felt the smooth starched material of a brand new snake bag. While it couldn’t maneuver close enough to get me, it was a good lesson on the sheer strength of even a medium-sized ashei, and after getting some on the spot advice and a moments help from Ferry holding the head in place so I could untwist the body and reposition the head, I had him back in a good position, sealed off the bag, double tied it, and a collective sigh of relief was breathed by all. Next up, the box! The snake was released into the pit, I restrained it, placed it in the box, job well done one minute later. It is certainly considerably easier to box a cobra than to bag one and I have learned a lot today. Finished the day with more mamba work with Ferry and a celebratory dinner of mbuzi, chips, and tusker for a hard day done. Bada ya kazi!


Some longs overdue updates...

Due to lack of internet access, transportation disasters, and long & difficult field days, I have not been able to update for a long time, so here come a few dated posts and an update. I left bio-ken on the 23rd of July, planning to arrive in the bush in the north of Kenya along the east side of the great rift valley on the 24th. After driving from watamu to mombasa, I hopped on the night train through Tsavo for the long ride to Nairobi. We arrived in nairobi around 10:30 am on the morning of the 24th, only 3.5 hours late which is practically early in africa time. I picked up Victor Wasonga, the head of herpetology department from the national museums of kenya, and we got into a tiny Rav 4 for the long drive up to the bush. What should have been a 5 hour drive from nairobi to laikipia, however, turned into a nightmare. I had doubts about our little car making it up along the roads (or lack thereof) leading into the bush from the start, which were only compounded by the fact that the rear door was broken, the radio antenna hung on by a thread, and the windows didn't work. The driver assured me that the car could make it however and we set off. First, we were stopped at a police checkpoint and had to pay a bribe of 100 shillings to be allowed through, after a tense negotiation. Aproximately 3 hours into our drive, the car overheated and stopped along a small road near lake naivasha. We paused for 30 minutes, blew off the steam, refilled the water tank, and set off again. 30 minutes later, we broke overheated again. Same process. Now getting concerned. 30 minutes later, and now at around 3:30 pm, we broke down for the 3rd and final time in a tiny frontier village whose name I can neither pronounce nor spell. It was then that we determined the radiator fanbelt had snapped, the fan was not working, and we couldn't move on without a new one. Long story short, we tracked down the only mechanic within 20 miles, the driver took a motorbike to the next town to get a new fanbelt, the mechanic took the engine apart, replaced the belt, and we turned on the car. Our "30 minute" detour, now 2.5 hours later, appeared to finally be over. The engine revved, whined, and died. It turned out that the battery had been replaced incorrectly by the mechanic, and after another 2.5 hours of effort it was determined that we would not be moving in the Rav 4 again.

It was now dark, we were stranded, and we had just received a call from the conservancy that we would not be allowed in after dark due to the new security situation, and would need to find somewhere else to stay until morning. Pissed off, nervous, and now stranded, we called for a matatu (minibus) to take us to the nearest sizeable town called Nyahururu. After another hour we got ahold of a matatu with a leaking gas tank and broken headlight that would take us after dark, and loaded it up with field gear and bags. 15 minutes after we set off, now 8 pm and very dark out, our matatu sputtered to a stop. The driver took a panel off of the floorboard, removed a component that was full of gasoline, blew the gas out all of the car and road, replaced the piece and we all got out to push the matatu so the engine would start. It started, we hopped in, and off we went again. 30 minutes later, we broke down again, same problem and same solution. The situation was getting almost comical, except for the fact we were breaking down along dark roads in dangerous country with no guarantee of making it to a town and a safe bed that night. We rode off again, when suddenly from the darkness came a pair of flashlights signaling us to halt. Police checkpoint #2. The driver negotiated with the policeman for 20 minutes to allow us through, but the cop confiscated his license, refused our bribes, and refused us access to the road due to our broken headlight. He told us to get the headlight fixed before we could pass and held onto our driver's license. Great.

As we turned around, presumably to wait several hours for another dubious repair job, our driver took a sharp turn down a dark dirt road through the bush. He told us he would leave his license behind, and we set off in the same matatu down a series of backroads to avoid the numerous police roadblocks which we would be denied access too. After a very hairy hour and a half of dark driving along nervewracking roads to avoid police, and 2 more breakdowns along the way, my stomach sunk as I spotted the familiar flashlight beam of another armed roadblock ahead. In a broken matatu, on a dark road, with a now license-less driver, we would surely be denied access, and stuck for who knows how long in who knows where, with no vehicle and no way to reach "civilization". As the police motioned for us to stop the driver pulled in slowly alongside the cop, with several more standing in the wings keeping an eye on us. As the head cop approached to question us, our driver gunned the engine at full speed, made a sharp turn, and shot through the roadblock! A very tense moment indeed, but without vehicles to pursue us the police had no way of stopping out vehicle short of gunfire, and we clearly weren't worth the ammunition expense, so we travelled on to the relative safety of nyahururu.

After a long search through town for Nyaki House, the only hotel in town, we pulled up weary, hungry, and ready for somewhere to crash. The accomodations were interesting to say the least, with a lovely collection of rats and mice for our enjoyment, and tiny rooms with well-used red satin heart covers. The hotel kindly provided a pair of used, broken flip flops in each room to keep guests from having to tread on the floor in their bare feet, but luckily there was such little floor space it was hardly a problem. The tiny bathroom took up 1/2 of the room, with the showerhead located directly above the toilet (explain that one to me!) and the bed using up the other half of the room. We ate in shifts so that no one could steal our bags from the rooms as we were out, but the restaurant was closing so dinner consisted of a cliff bar and a cup of tea. We arranged for a taxi to come pick us up at 6 am, as early as we could possibly get out of Nyaki house and off to the conservancy, and I had a restful nights sleep in my sleeping bag with a chair braced against the door. Ah, the joys of travel. Keeping with our car luck of the previous day our taxi never arrived the following morning, and and hour later we tracked down the only other available taxi driver in Nyahururu and his tiny 4 door 1980 sedan. It had rained before, and I had once again visions of our car not making it up the muddy bush roads to gallmann, but once again assured the car would do just fine, and literally out of options, we piled in and set off. After a 2 hour drive on what should have been a 1 hour road, we arrived at the gallmann gate, cleared security, made it inside, and were halfway to our destination when a massive, watery mud pit confronted us. I hopped out and cut some branches out of the way so our driver could go around the obstacle, but lacking proper training or strategy he floored the tiny engine and the car drove straight ahead, plunging into the puddle, spinning wheels fruitlessly, throwing up 15 foot cascades of mud over the car, the bush, us, and everything around. We were completely sunk. With nothing to do but laugh at our misfortune, I sat down and had a good chuckle, to the displeasure of our now very angry driver. After 10 minutes of sitting helplessly beside the car, with fresh lion tracks from the previous night all around us, we heard the welcome sound of an engine approaching. A big transport truck of heavily armed kenya wildlife service rangers, out on patrol, had chanced upon our position. They hooked up a cable to the bottom of the taxi, we all got in a line and pulled the car free. Soaked in mud but out of the puddle, handshakes and thanks were exchanged and we all went off our separate ways. Finally we had arrived at Gallmann, after one hell of an adventure, and could begin our field study.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Mamba Tango

June 11th was my first time handling a mamba, and it was quite an exciting day! First I watched and assisted while Sanda and Ferry caught & removed two black mambas with bad sheds from their cages, to get the procedure down. Then, Sanda told me it was my turn to do it on a green mamba! She picked a smaller one of about 3-4 feet that was a relatively new arrival because she said that the littler ones are more challenging due to a more wiry and aggressive nature, and they haven't had time to tame down. Then she said, "Okay, you're in charge now. If you tell us to run, we run. If anything happens while you are working with the snake then as the handler you are the one who is going to get bit." It was sobering but after waiting so long training alongside Ferry I knew it was time to suck it up and do what I came here to learn! I was quite nervous but felt as ready as I could ever be. Sanda was in charge of opening the door, I was in charge of getting the snake, and Ferry was my #2 guy on backup with his tongs in case anything went wrong. His job was also to place his tongs behind mine once I had the snake out of the cage and on the ground, and hold the snake with his tongs so that I could release mine and move them up to the neck of the snake. Sanda opened the door, I very carefully peered in to find my snake, mindful at all times of the location of second mamba in the cage, and carefully picked it up with my tongs about 1/3 of the way down the body. I pulled it out of the cage, grabbed its tail in my left hand, carried it into the open and brought it to the ground. Ferry put his tongs a few inches behind mine down the body to hold it in place, I moved to the other side of the snake so I could get it with my right hand, and slid my tongs in behind it's head. Bad placement, the snake was squirming and I didn't like the hold so I released it and made a 2nd attempt (Sanda and Ferry have told me many times it's better to try a few times for a good position to take the snake than to risk all on a bad hold for the sake of time or convenience). I carefully tonged it just at the base of the head, bent down, grabbed it behind the head with my right hand and worked my fingers up to the start of the head, with my thumb on top at the base of the jaws and my fingers curled underneath. The snake was squirming and twisting to try and bite but my grip was good, I released the tongs, picked up the snake, held it for a bit, then got ready to put it back. Because mambas are so fast and such good climbers the release can be the trickiest part, so I did as I was taught and gently threw the snake back into the cage, to prevent it from hitting the bottom and shooting right back up to deliver a bite. Snake free, door shut, hands unbitten!!! Sanda said well done and we talked for a few more minutes about procedure and handling stuff, and that was that! What an incredible rush though! My hands were shaking slightly from the excitement but I was so relieved/excited that my first time taking a deadly snake behind the head, and a mamba nonetheless, went off without a hitch! Sanda told me that the hardest part is doing the first one and that from now on what I'm going to do is to try and get lots of experience and find my own methods and what works well for me. I'm really honored though as she had told me they don't like to train people how to handle because it's too risky and they don’t want to have to deal with people who just want do it for the excitement, but that she knows I am going to be working with venomous snakes all my life as a herpetologist and I need to know these things. So all in all an exciting day I've been looking forwards to with some trepidation for a long time, now that the first one is done it's all about getting experience.

Pictures of mamba handling attached at the facebook link below, not from the first time I did it but from the work I have been doing with them over the last few days. I'm getting quite comfortable with the snakes and the technique now! The pictures demonstrate the method I wrote about above.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Bitis nasicornis

Rhinoceros Viper. Large, slow moving, quick striking, heavy bodied & unbelievably toxic snakes. Hemotoxins, Cytoxins, Neurotoxins, and Cardiotoxins are all present in their venom.