The man who is most at home at a snakes farm


Watamu Snake Park curator Kyle Ray holds a Kenyan sand boa. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Growing up in Nairobi, Kyle Ray was excited when his parents brought home a python as a pet.

While other children his age were playing around with toys and other pets like dogs and cats, Kyle domesticated a serpent because his whole family, especially his father, were interested in snakes.

“I was always interested in snakes as a young boy after it was cultivated or nurtured in me in my childhood. My parents first brought me to the Watamu Snake Farm in Kilifi County when I was 12 years old to start learning more about snakes,” says Kyle.

After visiting the snake farm in his childhood, he returned to the farm as a handler and even took over the curator position years later.

The fifth-generation Kenyan was born in Nairobi, schooled at Peponi Preparatory School and later joined Hillcrest Secondary School and left at 16 after completing his O-level education to focus on snakes.

Kyle, 33, has been handling venomous snakes for the last 15 years.

“I didn't choose this career, it chose me. I have a huge passion for snakes and trying to protect them. I came to the farm as a handler and took the curator position,” he tells the Business Daily.

At the farm, his mentors helped him study more about the reptiles. He furthered his craving by attending conferences and snake exhibitions globally.

His two children are also interested in everything wild.

“My children, aged six and three, are very interested and happy with the work that I do. My parents are also very supportive,” he says.

The children love visiting their father at the snake farm and enjoy seeing his work and handling snakes.

However, his son has a big interest in frogs.

"But they are young and still finding out what they are interested in,” says the snake handler.

Kyle believes there are not enough experts in the sector who are properly trained.

However, he says through grants many Kenyans would be trained as handlers.

“This is also time-consuming work, our handler went through three years of training to become a senior venomous snake handler,” says Kyle.

Kyle, who is also trained in fire safety, decries the lack of sufficient female snake handlers. This is despite his belief that women make the best snake handlers.

“We have trained Ms Nancy Njeri who works at our farm. She is a great snake handler. Female handlers usually make the best and have way less bites than males. Women don't have anything to prove but men are always trying to impress!” notes Kyle.

He has never worked in any other snake farm apart from Watamu where he was mentored.

However, he has worked in several places in the Maasai Mara as a guide and a lodge manager.

His favourite snake is the eyelash viper.

Out of the African species, Kyle has two favourites: a red spitting Cobra and a gaboon viper.

“Because of their colours, patterns and their behaviour, I can’t choose between the two,” says Kyle.

His career has taken him to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Germany, all being countries where snake talks and fairs are held frequently.

Normal snake bites

Kyle has also met many world-renowned specialists in his field including Stephen Spawls, David Williams, David Warrel, and Mark O'Shea.

While hunting or handling snakes, he says, handlers must wear protective gear including closed shoes and use snake handling tools.

In his duty, Kyle has been bitten by several non-venomous snakes, terming it as normal in the industry.

“But I have not been bitten by venomous snakes,” he adds.

He plans to grow in his role as a snake handler at the snake farm which normally receives tourists from all over the world.

"Watamu is very seasonal and depends on the time of the year. We can receive between 200 and 300 visitors in a month, both from within the country as well as foreigners from Italy, Germany, America and even France," he says.

“I also want to keep spreading awareness about snakes and teach people the importance of snakes,” he adds.

The snake farm, which was founded in 1980, is home to over 30 species of serpents including those with the world's deadliest venom, such as the Boomslang, Black Mamba, Egyptian Cobra, Gaboon Viper, and Puff Adder.

The non-profit organisation researches venom to help the communities suffering the burden of snake bites in the country.

His normal shift begins at daybreak.

Boniface Momanyi, the snake farm manager, says, “We are yet to get the Jameson mamba which originates from Western Kenya. We also have cobras including forest cobras, red spitting cobras, and Egyptian cobras,” said the manager.

The snakes are housed in cages with most of them captured from different parts of the country.

Most of the encounters with humans are recorded in Kilifi where more than 10 cases of snake bites are reported in one month alone.

“Most of the people bitten are children while playing and women cutting firewood. Snake venom carries toxins which is a complex mixture of proteins and enzymes,” says Boniface.

He adds that the species have deadly venom classified into three major categories: neurotoxic, hemotoxic, and cytotoxic.

Neurotoxic venom harms the brain and nervous system and it can be delivered without causing a lot of pain and most people do not even realise they have been bitten until the symptoms start to kick in.

Deadliest snake

Neurotoxic venom is said to be the deadliest one and depending on the amount injected into the victim, it can kill within 30 minutes.

The black mamba produces this particular variant and has a fatality rate of 100 percent, making it the deadliest snake on the planet.

Hemotoxic venom disrupts blood clotting, thereby impacting the cardiovascular system. It also causes tissue damage throughout the body and massive internal bleeding.

The cytotoxic venom causes severe pain by impairing the tissues on a molecular level, leading to death.

Milking snakes

Kyle says snakebites kill over 1,000 people in Kenya alone.

“There are a lot of people who get bitten and end up with permanent disabilities. Another huge problem is mental trauma. Someone who has been bitten may have been a sole breadwinner and they can't earn income any more, so they end up being a burden on the family,” explains Kyle.

He also milks snakes, a process commonly known as venom extraction. The Business Daily met him milking an Egyptian cobra.

First, the snake was taken out from the pot and put on the mat where they then put it in a tube.

“It is the safest way to handle the snake. Egyptian cobras are found in Maanzoni, Konza, Naivasha and we have an isolated population in Busia. It has really bad protein venom,” he explains.

Milking of venom is done daily at exactly 11 o'clock.

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