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.

Searching for Mambas & Cobras in a Cave

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Welcome to the Jungle

Well, I know it's been a while so this one is long overdue! On June 23rd at night I arrived in Watamu at the Bio-Ken Bio-Toxin Research Center and Snake Farm. First of all, the place is unbelievable- they have by far the most incredible collection of snakes I have ever seen. Over 40 black mambas alone, dozens of cobras, mambas, puff adders, bush vipers, gaboon vipers, the largest species of spitting cobra in the world (and it is MASSIVE!), among hundred of other snakes. Bio-Ken houses all of these snakes and then extracts venom from the dangerous species to use for the production of anti-venom, a long and expensive process that takes place with various pharmaceutical companies in South Africa and beyond. They catch & remove venomous snakes from peoples homes, hotels, roads, etc whenever a call comes in, identify species, host snakebite seminars, and treat locals and those who cannot afford anti-venom free of charge through the James Ashe Anti-Venom trust. It's really important work and I'm quite lucky to be out here learning about it and working side by side with them. I've been working quite hard the last 2 weeks or so here doing husbandry work, learning about snakebite and snakebite treatment, getting trained up with the snakes, and more. They wanted to have me work my way up from the ground up to make sure I know what I'm talking about (can't just let anyone work with deadly snakes as their is a lot of risk involved for both parties), but I'm now getting to the point where I hope to begin training on elapids (cobras and mambas) in the next few days. I've been doing a good deal of work with vipers since I have experience working with them from home, and moving some cobras and whatnot with Ferry (their best snake handler & a great guy!) but the elapids are a completely different ballgame so i'm really grateful to receive the training here.

I've been doing so much here with so many snakes that it's hard to pin down certain events or stories to share, but I'll talk about the first snake call we got while I was here the other day to help give you all an idea of what i'm doing in the middle of East Africa! On the 2nd of July, while eating lunch with the guys at a local place (about $1 for a delicious meal of fish supu and chapatti!), a call came in to Ferry's cell phone that there was a possible cobra trapped somewhere. There weren't many specifics and I didn't really have any idea what we would be getting ourselves into, but we called for an emergency Tuk-Tuk (a small 3 wheeled vehicle that is much like a taxi but a lot cheaper and much more rickety), scarfed down our food, and headed out. We ran into the snake park to grab our tongs, hooks, snake bags, flashlights, and goggles in the event of a spitting cobra, and then somehow managed to cram 5 guys including the driver and a boatload of snake equipment into the tiny vehicle. Zooming around the Kenyan roads at a high rate of speed, we bumped along for about 25 minutes until we arrived at a more remote village near the ruins of Gede. As we hopped out and walked in, the villagers were crowded excitedly around a few sheets of roofing tin. They peeled them back to reveal a large, muddy hole straight down into the ground about 10 feet, and a good sized Naja ashei (large brown spitting cobra) pacing the bottom of in a very agitated state. Far from ideal conditions to catch such a dangerous serpent. Goggles on and tongs in hand we surrounded the hole and Ferry carefully climbed in to work his magic. He first gripped the other third of the body with 1 pair of tongs, then used a second pair to get it behind the head, dropped the first pair and grabbed the snake behind the head in his hand, and then began to climb out. I pulled him the rest of the way up, the snake was bagged, the villagers cheered, and a very happy team of snakehunters rode off via Tuk-Tuk into the dusty road home. It was a job well done and very impressive to see how Ferry caught the snake in the conditions we were presented with. Pictures follow:

The snake in the hole.

Ferry tonging the snake

Bagging the Cobra

Our Tuk-Tuk, snakehunters emergency vehicle of choice