Cobra fang club: The rising popularity of Kenyan snake farms

An Egyptian cobra Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Egyptian cobras can kill you within 15 minutes

When Makau Kioko crouches down to grab an Egyptian cobra the visiting audience always watches on with trepidation.

If the 53-year-old gets his timing wrong - and he is playing with split seconds - he is going to get bitten by one of Africa's most venomous snakes.

Mr Kioko wears protective gloves for his regular daredevil display, but if the cobra bites him anywhere else he could be dead within 15 minutes.

The venom causes respiratory failure, which can lead to paralysis and death. It is so toxic that it can even kill elephants.

Thankfully for Mr Kioko, the owner of the snake farm and visitor attraction Kioko Snake Ventures, in Kitui, eastern Kenya, he says he "always makes sure he wins" his cobra grapples.

However, one of his workers wasn't so lucky a few years ago, and did get bitten by one of the cobras.

Image copyright Gitonga Njeru
Image caption Another snake farmer, David Musyoka, has more than 220 snakes at his farm in eastern Kenya

While the farm keeps stocks of anti-venom, it wasn't administered quickly enough to prevent the man's legs being paralysed, and they subsequently had to be amputated.

Another member of staff died of his injuries after being crushed by a huge African rock python, the continent's largest snake.

"The snake felt threatened as the man attempted to get close to it to feed it a live adult goat," Mr Kioko says.

"It quickly wrapped its body around him and squeezed him. It didn't eat him, pythons rarely eat humans, but he died."

Tourist attractions

Although being a snake farmer has its obvious risks, it is a growing industry in Kenya.

There are now 42 such farms in the country, and a further 21 are awaiting licensing approval, according to the government body responsible for regulating the sector, the Kenya Wildlife Service.

Image copyright Gitonga Njeru
Image caption Kioko Snake Ventures gets more than 350 visitors a day

The farms primarily make their money as tourist attractions that charge visitors.

They also export snakes, mainly to zoos and pet shops in Europe and North America, where the best and biggest examples are sold for more than 10,000 Kenyan shillings ($100; £80). Snakes are also sold for venom harvesting and scientific research, both domestically and overseas.

Despite occasional fatalities and other injuries, staff at the farms are required to have relevant qualifications, such as diplomas in animal management.

Mr Kioko and his 16 employees look after more than 1,800 snakes, half of which are pythons. The other 50% include more than 32 different African species, plus 13 that are native to other continents.

On a good day Mr Kioko says his five-acre (two-hectare) farm, which opened in 2009, now attracts more than 350 visitors. Kenyans are charged 300 shillings, while overseas tourists have to pay an entrance fee of 1,000 shillings.

In addition to watching Mr Kioko's daredevil cobra act people can learn all about the snakes, and see them up close.

Image copyright Gitonga Njeru
Image caption Workers in the industry require qualifications

To keep the snakes happy and healthy at the facility he says they have to be given as much living space as they need. This means outdoor enclosures for the largest specimens.

Some of the snakes Mr Kioko breeds, others he rescues.

"Snakes invade people's homes and bite them," he says. "I'm then called out to capture the animals from their homesteads. In return I keep them, and raise them on my farm."

Theft risk

Another Kenyan snake farmer is David Musyoka, who has more than 220 snakes at his facility in Meru County, eastern Kenya.

His collection includes the venomous Mount Kenya Bush Viper, and milk snakes, which are native to North and South America. Visitors are charged 300 shillings, with an average of 50 people visiting per day.

Image copyright Gitonga Njeru
Image caption The pythons can become a risk to the workers as they get older and bigger

The 54-year-old says: "I also export to zoos in the Czech Republic, UK, Germany, US, Mexico and Brazil. Also, China is an emerging market."

While he says he is happy with the business, he does have to endure the occasional break-in.

"I have had incidents when people have invaded my farm, stolen a few snakes, and illegally sold them to witch doctors," says Mr Musyoka. "Others sell the meat on the black market, so these are some of the challenges."

Albert Otieno, a senior reptile curator at the National Museum of Kenya, says that while snake farms can bring in a steady income, they require significant start-up capital which can be hard to come by. He adds that Kenyan banks like to give money to established businesses rather than unproven start-ups.

Image copyright Gitonga Njeru
Image caption David Musyoka exports his snakes to European zoos

"For a start-up [snake farm] you need to raise not less than three million shillings or $30,000."

Prof Germano Mwabu, a World Bank consultant economist at the University of Nairobi, adds that money is not enough, and that instead you need to be very knowledgeable about the reptiles.

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Image caption Clinton brought Andy Kuper to wider attention

"To be successful you have to know a lot about the ecology of snakes," he says. "[For example], you have to have knowledge about their breeding."

Back at Kioko Snake Ventures, Makau Kioko has a diploma in reptile management, so he more than knows the risks when he is catching cobras or wrestling pythons.