Venomous snakes of Kenya: Genus Bitis (Adders)

Hey there?

How familiar are you with this group of snakes? You may have come across one species (must have been an exciting experience) Or maybe seen it on social media. What did you first notice? You might want to think back to that moment…. If you have never seen an adder before say no more, this article has you covered.

When thinking about dangerous snakes in Kenya, the family of vipers is at the top of that list. I remember the first time I saw an adder in person. I was in awe of its beauty. I wondered how such beautiful creatures could be so dangerous. I am still mesmerized by their beauty every time I see them.

The first thing I noted was the beautiful marks and patterns, unique to the different species in this genus. Perhaps this is what makes them easy to identify. They are “puffy” and short, not growing to long lengths. They are also characterized by broad heads (sub-triangular). As a result of their stout bodies, they are unable to climb on trees hence spend most of their lives on land. They are slow-moving snakes, active during the night, from early dusk.

We have 4 species of adders in Kenya:

Gabon viper (Bitis gabonica)

Puff Adder (Bitis arietans

Kenya horned viper (Bitis worthingtoni)

Rhinoceros viper (Bitis nasicornis)

Gabon viper (Swahili: Moma ya Gabon)

This species is easy to identify from its flat white triangular head and its unique complex color pattern. The back has a chain of pale, sub rectangular blotches interspaced with dark yellow-edged hourglass markings.

Notice the colour of the head and patterns along the body. Photo adopted from google

They may be hard to spot in the wild as they camouflage well with leaf litter and areas with thick vegetation. It is confined to the forests of western Kenya from Kakamega forest and Nandi hills. I know what you are thinking…. Kakamega is quite a distance. Luckily, if you live within Nairobi and its environs, you can get to see this species at the Nairobi Snake park located within the National Museums of Kenya.

Notice how well the snake blends with the leaf litter. Photo courtesy: Kenya Reptile Atlas

Puff adder (Swahili: Moma)

This is the most famous viper not only in Kenya, but the whole of Africa. They are widely distributed in almost every county. Their good camouflage offers them safety from predators and makes them difficult to spot in the dark, hence the number of known bite cases are many, compared to its relatives.

They may be brown, grey, yellow or even orange above with a series of pale light and dark edged V-shapes along the spine. The broad head with a pale line between the eyes also makes identification easy.

They are labeled as Africa’s most dangerous snake as they are responsible for more bites and fatalities than the feared black mamba.

Photo courtesy of Kenya Reptile atlas

Kenya Horned viper (Moma kidogo ya pembe)

Have you ever wondered how snakes would look like if they possessed horns? well, i never thought this was a possibility until I came across a picture of the Kenya Horned viper. I really hope to get the opportunity to see it in person one day.

A beautiful small viper (Average size 20-35cm) with distinct horns above each eye and dark triangle on its head. Mostly grey in colour with a pale stripe along each flank, above and below this a series of sub-rectangular black markings.

Photo courtesy Kenya Reptile Atlas.

They are a Kenyan endemic meaning they are only known from the high central rift valley of Kenya; on rocky grounds.

Rhinoceros viper (Swahili: Moma ya msitu)

The key identity feature is the cluster of horns above the nose. In addition, the series of butterfly markings along its spine and dark triangles on the flanks make identification quite easy.  In the country it is known only from western Kenya; Kakamega forest, Nandi hills and Nandi forests.

They are rarely found outside the forest thus few known cases of bites from this species.

Photo adopted from google.

Did you know that….

They are oviviparous. This means that unlike most serpents who lay eggs, the above snakes give birth to live young ones.                                                                

Their fangs are moveable. They are folded when the mouth is shut and move forward when they open the mouth to kill prey or yawn.

Venom

A bite from these snakes will result in pain and swelling at the bitten site. The affected limb may swell as the venom affects the local tissues and muscle cells. Luckily there are few known bite cases from the Rhinoceros viper, Gabon viper and the Kenya horned viper. The Puff adder is a different case.

In case of a bite from this snake, the victim should be transported to the nearest hospital offering snake bite treatment. The only sure treatment for snake bites is the administration of antivenom. Do not be convinced otherwise.

To reduce the effects of the venom, you can assist the victim by ensuring they are calm and are not moving up and about. Transport them to the hospital in a vehicle or motorcycle. Do not attempt to cut, suck the venom or apply a tourniquet on the bite area. This has not been proven to work and will only worsen the situation as more time will be wasted. Time is very crucial when it comes to management of snake bites and every minute should be directed towards getting the patient to hospital safely.

As mentioned in A glimpse of Kenyan snakes, identifying snakes in the country may take time. I hope this article is a step towards attaining this objective. Watch out for the next post.

See you next!

VENOMOUS SNAKES OF KENYA: Mambas

The photography above courtesy of Kenya reptile atlas shows the three species of mambas in Kenya. From the right, black mamba, Jameson’s mamba and eastern green mamba.

Hey there?

The next series of articles will focus on the venomous snakes of Kenya.  Today will be all about a famous group of snakes; the mambas. A good number are familiar with this group. Some have seen them in photographs while others have encountered them. There is another group (which I believe is the majority) who have only heard the name but have never seen any of these snakes.

Despite the fact that this group is well known and feared all around the world, there are many myths surrounding these snakes. Some African myths exaggerate the capabilities of these snakes and they have been blamed for numerous human deaths.

What are Mambas?

The Mamba is a genus of venomous African snakes from the elapid family. It comprises of four species: the black mamba, eastern green mamba, Jameson’s mamba and western green mamba. The first three species are present in Kenya. The western green mamba is found in west Africa with a few isolated records from east Ghana, Togo and Nigeria.

They are long snakes with a distinct coffin- shaped head, medium-sized eyes with round pupils and smooth scales. The fangs of mambas are located at the front of the mouth and a bite from any of these snakes SHOULD be treated as a medical emergency. Despite their deadly venom, they are responsible for only a small number of deaths annually.

BLACK MAMBA (Koboko in Swahili)

Photo courtesy of Kenya reptile atlas. Black Mamba

The black mamba is one of Africa’s most venomous snakes. In combination with its large size and fast speed, it has gained an aggressive reputation. They are the longest venomous snake in Africa with a length of up to 4 meters and the second longest in the world after the King cobra.

Contrary to what the name suggests, the black mamba may be grey, olive or yellow-brown with a pale belly. They get their name from the inky black color of their mouths. They are confused to other snakes especially the brown house snake which is a small, harmless, terrestrial snake often found in and around people’s houses. House snakes are active at night whereas black mambas are active during the day and will feed on a variety of prey ranging from small mammals to birds. 

They are shy snakes and despite popular belief, they will almost always escape when confronted. However when cornered, they will raise their heads above the surface, spread a narrow hood (like a cobra), open their mouths to display its black interior and hiss loudly. This is its way of warning predators or humans to back off! With no space to escape, the snake will attack, injecting venom.

Black mamba spreading a cobra-like hood as a warning sign
Photo courtesy of Kenya reptile atlas. This picture shows a black mamba spreading a cobra-like hood as a warning sign.

The venom is fast acting and potent, attacking the nervous system and paralyzing its victims. Without the antivenom, possibility of death is 100%.

In Kenya, this snake can be found in the towns of Mombasa, Kisumu, Mwingi, Watamu, Voi and Mtito Andei.

EASTERN GREEN MAMBA (Koboko Kijani in Swahili) 

Photograph courtesy of Kenya reptile atlas. Green Mamba

This is a (beautiful) green snake with pale yellow on the belly. It is perfectly adapted for arboreal living (on trees) with incredible camouflage which helps them blend with their habitat and makes them nearly impossible to spot. They rarely stay on ground unless motivated by hunger or thirst.

They are often confused with harmless green snakes and the green boomslang.

They can grow up to 2.3 meters and will prey on birds, small mammals and arboreal lizards during the day.

The eastern green mamba is very secretive and will avoid confrontations with human beings or other predators. However when disturbed with nowhere to escape, the snake will bite leading to envenomation. Like the black mamba, the venom attacks the nervous system and death may occur from as little as 20 minutes to 3 hours or longer if the antivenom is not administered immediately.

They are mostly found in coastal Kenya with inland records in Kibwezi, Meru National park, south-eastern Nyambene Hills and Chyulu Hills.

JAMESON’S MAMBA

Photo adopted from Kenya reptile atlas. Jameson’s Mamba

The Jameson’s mamba is a very secretive snake that inhabits dense vegetation. It is dull green with black-edged scales and the tail black. The belly is yellow in color.

Like the first two mambas, the Jameson’s mamba is also active during the day while preying on small mammals, birds and arboreal lizards.

Even though they possess potent venom affecting the nervous system, bites from this snake are very rare.

In Kenya, they are only found in the western region near the following towns; Kakamega (specifically Kakamega Forest), Butere and Mumias.

A glimpse of Kenyan snakes

Imagine walking on a path minding your business, or just basking under the sun in your compound or even sitting on the couch watching TV and your attention is drawn to the sight of a crawling object! For most of us, our first thought would be IS THAT A SNAKE!!! We would probably jump on the chair, run for safety or scream our lungs to exhaustion.

You decide to take a second glance just to confirm and to your relief it’s just a rope, or a snake toy prank from a friend. Phweks!

But what if it’s truly a snake? What would be your first reaction? Would you jump with excitement and run to grab the snake?

My best guess is that your flight response would be activated ASAP! Run for safety, call for help and some may not want to sleep at night fearing nightmares.

For the longest time, snakes have been associated with everything bad. Of all known reptiles, they are the most popular and most feared.

Snakes in Kenya

There are 149 species of snake in Kenya. Of this, 81 species are non, venomous,37 mildly venomous and 31 are venomous with only <10 fatal. Only 20% of all snakes in Kenya are capable of envenomation!

This raises the issue of people killing many non- venomous snakes out of fear. I also like to think that this happens because many do not know the difference between a venomous and non-venomous snake. How do I tell the difference when they all look the same? This is a popular question I get. Here are some key points to help you out.

Venomous vs. Non-venomous snakes

You’ve probably heard this before; Venomous snakes have elliptical-shaped pupils, triangular heads, are long and some brightly colored. Well, this is not the case.

There is no definite way to tell apart the two. Some venomous snakes like the mambas have round shaped pupils yet they possess the deadliest venom in Africa. Snakes in the viper family have short and stout bodies yet some members are responsible for most snake bites and deaths in Kenya.

The only way to tell the difference is by knowing the snakes, being able to identify the snake and understand its locality. But that seems like a lot of work?

It is. It may take days or even a few months to know them all and you may stumble upon different information that may confuse you. Luckily, the next series of articles will talk about the venomous snakes in Kenya, their distribution, and all matters in relation to snake bites.

Till next time!

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