Charming Snakes by Dr Valerie Jeffries

A Seminar on Reptiles, Institute of Primate Research (IPR), Kenya

Seminar at IPR: photos courtesy of John and Margaret Cooper.
Valerie and others viewing snakes with Geofrey Kephah.

A seminar on “Reptiles and Snakebite” was held at the Kenya Snakebite Research and Intervention Centre (KSRIC) near Nairobi on March 11th 2020, organised by Mrs Margaret Cooper and of course by Professor John Cooper, together with Dr. Atunga Nyachieo, (Chief of Research IPR) for the benefit of Kenyan vets, wildlife park managers, museum curators, students, and anyone interested in snakes. The director of IPR, Dr Hastings Ozwara, welcomed participants to the seminar, attended the lectures, and closed the proceedings.

The new IPR Conference Hall was crowded, showing that snakes are an up-and-coming sector of animal husbandry. Some of the final year veterinary students will have been inspired to join the “Snake Charmers”, who volunteer and learn at KSRIC with mentor Dr Jessicah Murere, who is also responsible for the health and welfare of the reptiles in the Nairobi Snake Park, National Museums of Kenya (NMK). This work requires much knowledge and experience, as reptiles indicate stress and ill-health less obviously than mammals.

Before the formal presentations started, Margaret Cooper announced that she and her husband had just returned from Baringo, where they met theirold friend Jonathan Leakey, now in his 80th year. Jonathan is the eldest son of Dr Louis (L S B) Leakey, the founder of the Institute of Primate Research (IPR) and was the first curator of the Nairobi Snake Park. Jonathan had sent good wishes to the seminar and expressed his pleasure that so many young Kenyans were now interested in reptiles. Jonathan Leakey had been interviewed by the Coopers and a feature about him, including a video, will appear as a separate item on the FFON website.

Are you doubting whether your first response to finding a snake on the path would be “Does it feel unwell?” You are not alone. Local communities naturally have a primary interest in their own welfare and no sympathy for snakes.

But KSRIC biochemical research has a medical purpose, and the scientists have a close relationship with the nearest hospital so that research and clinical knowledge can interact. It saves human lives. Motorbike ambulances can send an expert to the victim of a bite, bringing injectable antiserum as soon as possible. Antiserum is what your own blood produces when bitten, but often too slowly to save you. Better to have a store of injectable antiserum purified from the blood of horses given a mild dose of the same venom. KSRIC plans their own antiserum production unit, including stables, for antiserum tailor-made to the bites of Kenyan snakes, maybe using more economical donkeys or camels instead of horses. And for the venom production, a supply of healthy happy deadly donor snakes is essential, so yes, the “Snake Charmers” must learn to tell how a snake is feeling!

Geofrey Kephah at work with his snakes.

Here we come to the highlight of the Seminar: a tour of the Herpetarium by Mr Geofrey Kephah. There are snake-restraining implements all along the corridor walls, protective clothing, alarm buttons, health and safety equipment of all kinds. The snake room is temperature- and light-controlled, with shelves of labelled plastic box cages. Each cage contains a water dish and an upturned cut-out bowl for a bedroom, and one small venomous snake. Geofrey explained the importance of keeping the snakes content and showing their natural behaviour; for example, the green-scaled black mamba which instantly reared when Geofrey tapped his pen on the cage, showing its wide gaping black mouth.

Geofrey Kephah and his assistant Fred Angole at work with the snakes.
John E Cooper, Geofrey Kephah and Fred Angole at entrance to the Unit, in the beautiful Ololua Forest.

Every day staff, always working in pairs, check each snake’s weight, skin condition, any evidence of parasites or agitation, and what could be described as degree of bagginess. Their food is mice, frozen then thawed, exactly enough to preserve freshness while not chilling their sensitive insides. All in the interests of a good yield of clean venom, which is in the interests of treatment, especially for rural people, who suffer most bites. To cope with venomous snakes as enemies you must treat them as friends, and respect all their legal rights as captive animals, as Mrs Margaret Cooper (UK/Europe and East Africa) reminded us. After ‘milking’ for venom, retired snakes are released to appropriate habitat guided by Kenyan wildlife professionals, for conservation.

John E Cooper chairing the formal presentations.
(Photos courtesy of Geofrey Kephah):
The group, including Margaret E Cooper, tours the Unit.

There were further presentations, including by Dr Jessicah Murere and Mrs Margaret Njeri (NMK, Kenya), Dr Jaanvi Patel (veterinary practitioner, UK), and Professor John E. Cooper (UK/Europe and East Africa). Even before the welcome refreshments, the seminar participants were feeling more fondly towards our scaly brethren. So thanks to Professor and Mrs Cooper for another terrific day of instruction and entertainment, as the Coopers regularly provide in East Africa, Britain, and elsewhere. Thanks particularly to Dr George Omondi, Head of KSRIC (https://ksric-asrg.org/) which is evidently becoming a major branch of the Institute of Primate Research (http://primateresearch.org/), located in the attractive and environmentally-important Ololua Forest, Karen, on the outskirts of Nairobi. Neurotoxic snake venom is useful in neurobiology at IPR, even in endometriosis research.

Dr Jessicah Murere, the “Snake Charmer”
Dr Valerie, Dr Jessicah and others listen attentively as Geofrey Kephah explains how snakes should be kept – securely, but with attention to their welfare
Geofrey Kephah discusses the work of the Unit

KSRIC is evidently becoming a major branch of the Institute of Primate Research, located in the attractive and environmentally-important Ololua Forest, Karen, on the outskirts of Nairobi. Neurotoxic snake venom is useful in neurobiology at IPR, even in endometriosis research. Partnership is advancing medical progress, all because some Kenyan vets actually do know how a snake is feeling.

Dr Valerie Jeffries

Dr Valerie Jeffries completed her Genetics PhD at Leeds University and worked in Aquaculture, then Education including for the Open University. Study of Evolution remains her principle interest, not least of the Haplochromin cichlid fish in Lake Victoria.

Dr Valerie Jeffries FLS

March 2020

For Promotion and Technical support thanks to Simon King, FFON, and Helen Jeffries.

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