Photograph by Maurice Oniango
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The Mt. Kenya Bush viper (Atheris desaixi), a species also only found in limited areas of Chuka, Kenya, is threatened by poaching for the pet trade. Fear of snakes is common in Kenya, both because of the risk of snake bites and beliefs that snakes are evil, which makes cracking down on poaching more difficult.

Photograph by Maurice Oniango

Rare vipers are being poached in Kenya—but some people are grateful

Superstition and fear of snakes complicate efforts to stop the illegal trade.

Agnes Pili was in her kitchen in Kilifi, a town on the coast of Kenya, one sunny afternoon last year preparing lunch for her family when she noticed an uninvited guest.

“I was picking up a plate, and that’s when I saw it,” she says. “I screamed for help, but my husband was not around.” A snake had slithered into her kitchen and coiled itself in a corner next to her utensils rack. She grabbed a club her husband keeps nearby in case of burglary and bludgeoned the snake to death.

Pili believes that snakes are evil. “I don’t see why we should conserve them because they are deadly, satanic creatures,” she says.

More than 80 percent of Kenyans are Christians, and in the Bible, snakes are associated with Satan: God cursed the serpent and declared it an eternal enemy of man. Many Kenyans today think likewise. Snakes are also associated with witchcraft because sorcerers use them to perform black magic to frighten or injure an enemy. Some Kenyans believe that dreaming of or seeing a snake means you or a loved one will die.

Mt. Kenya Bush Viper
Video by Maurice Oniango

“Snakes bring bad omens, and I cannot let it go when I see one,” says Gitari Njagi, a primary school head teacher in Chuka, in eastern Kenya. The first thing Njagi says he does when he encounters a snake is kill it.

Fear of snake bites also contributes to negative attitudes about snakes, says Patrick Malonza, a senior research scientist who heads the herpetology department at the National Museums of Kenya, a government agency that manages museums and historical sites.

These beliefs have made it easier for poachers to take endangered snakes from the wild illegally and not face repercussions, says Royjan Taylor, director of Bio-Ken Snake Farm, in Watamu, which breeds snakes for education and antivenin research. Poachers are typically seen not as law breakers but problem solvers, eliminating a threat to the community, he says.

Rare vipers

Herpetologists at the National Museums of Kenya, a government agency that manages museums and historical sites, fear that two rare snakes found only in Kenya, in two isolated spots, are both at risk of extinction. The Mt. Kenya bush viper and the Kenya horned viper, whose two tiny horns atop its head reinforce the belief that it’s the devil incarnate, face threats from habitat destruction and illegal collection for the European and American exotic pet markets. Both venomous, the two snake species are also used by circus entertainers for acts such as snake charming, kissing the snake, dancing with the snake, and wrapping the snake around the performer’s neck or waist.

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These species are like a rare stamp which someone pays a lot of money for it and wants to keep to themselves.
Royjan Taylor, Bio-Ken

“You cannot find the Mt. Kenya bush viper and the Kenya horned viper anywhere else in the world, and anybody who tells you they got theirs in Tanzania or Uganda are liars,” Taylor says, adding that demand is driven by the desire to own something rare. “These species are like a rare stamp which someone pays a lot of money for it and wants to keep to themselves,” he says.

That’s because Kenya has considered both species “vulnerable and in need of special protection” since 2013, when the Wildlife Management Act became law. Before then, there were no limits on the number of snakes that could be collected, or from what areas, but now the only way to collect the vipers legally is with a permit from the Kenya Wildlife Service, the agency responsible for managing the country’s wild animals and plants. Further protections followed in 2016, when the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the treaty that regulates cross-border commerce in wildlife, prohibited international commercial trade in the two species.

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The Kenya horned viper (Bitis worthingtoni), a small snake endemic to Kenya, is in demand by foreign collectors because of its distinctive features. To some in Kenya, its horns above its eyes reinforce a belief that it’s an incarnation of the devil.

Although the populations of neither species is known, the snakes’ rarity seems beyond doubt. In 2010, Jacob Ngwava, a research scientist in the herpetology department at the National Museums of Kenya, spent six months searching for the Mt. Kenya bush vipers. He and his team found just 12.

Reports from scientists in the parts of the Rift Valley where Kenya horned vipers live indicate that the species is now rarer than ever before: A survey conducted in the Kinangop Plateau, for example, turned up none, Malonza says.

Mt. Kenya bush vipers and Kenya horned vipers have been showing up for sale in Europe and North America in pet shops and online forums for $1,000 or more, according to the proposal Kenya put forth to CITES in 2016. In May 2017, the website Mongabay reported that a law enforcement officer with the Kenya National Police Service estimated that between 100 and 350 of the two snake species have been smuggled out of the country each year since the 1980s.

Kenya horned viper
VIDEO BY MAURICE ONIANGO

Despite the snakes’ protections, few poachers are arrested in Kenya, says Jim Karani of WildlifeDirect, a Nairobi-based conservation NGO. Law enforcement officers aren’t good at detecting snake smuggling, and if vipers are confiscated, officials have no place to house and maintain the animals, which must be kept available as evidence in legal proceedings.

Furthermore, Karani says, “the problem with law enforcement is that no one is looking for snakes.” To make matters more difficult, snakes can easily be hidden and pass checkpoints undetected. It’s important, he says, to train law enforcement officers in how to monitor transit areas, carry out routine checks, identify species, and handle snakes when they’re found.

Solomon Kyalo, the head of CITES implementation for the Kenya Wildlife Service, notes that every two years the service and the National Museums of Kenya give rangers short training courses on reptiles, including snake handling.

Karani says rangers also need to be informed about the natural history of the snakes and their role in ecosystems. “The Mt. Kenya bush vipers’ law enforcers have not been trained to the point that they understand the snake is important in the Mt. Kenya ecosystem,” he says. This snake is a mid-level predator that helps keep ecosystem healthy and balanced by feeding on rodents and pests, and people aren’t aware that it’s found only in the Mt. Kenya area “and nowhere else in the world.”

Saved from Evil

Because snakes are so feared and reviled among many Kenyans, Agnes Pili is surprised that anyone would want to collect or buy. Nor does she think snake poaching is a problem. “I don’t understand why this should be a matter of concern,” she says, because snake poachers “are helping society in a way.”

Karani says fear and superstition of snakes can keep snake poachers from being arrested and charged. Arresting officers may themselves associate snakes with evil and want to avoid any connection with them.

According to WildlifeDirect’s court monitoring project, which tracks the legal proceedings of wildlife crime cases, there has been only one known case of a snake-related prosecution in Kenya. That was back in 2013, when a British citizen and his Kenyan accomplice pleaded guilty to being in possession of six live Kenya horned vipers. The two weren’t able to explain why they had the snakes without a Kenya Wildlife Service permit and where they intended to take them. They were sentenced to five years in prison.

“We as Kenyans have to agree that a snake is just a wild animal, says Royjan Taylor, the head of the snake farm. “It is not the devil or evil spirits. If found in a place where it’s not supposed to be, call for help so that the snake can be relocated—the same way you would do with any other animal, like an elephant, because they are equally important and in dire need of conservation.”

Maurice Oniang’o is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Nairobi. His work has appeared on NTV, KTN, Al Jazeera, and 100 Reporters, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter.
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@natgeo.com.