• Herpetologists at the National Museums of Kenya now 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 are now “vulnerable and in need of special protection” due to poaching.
  • Efforts to conserve the snakes have made more complicated by Kenyan’s belief that snakes are evil as a result poachers are typically seen not as lawbreakers but problem solvers.

Meet two vipers so rare that they fetch prices of up to $1,000 or more in international black markets and are only found in Kenya.

The Mt. Kenya bush viper and the Kenya horned viper are now “vulnerable and in need of special protection” due to poaching.

“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,” Royjan Taylor, director of Bio-Ken Snake Farm in Watamu, which breeds snakes for education and antivenin research, told Maurice Oniang'o working with National Geography.

Kenya Horned Viper (Bio-Ken) Kenya Horned Viper (Bio-Ken)

Mount Kenya bush viper, a large, thick-bodied arboreal viper, is found only in the forests of high central Kenya. Only two populations are known, one around Igembe in the northern Nyambeni range, and one at Chuka on the south-eastern side of Mount Kenya (Spawls et al, 2002).

The Kenya horned viper is a small viper and one of the most spectacular and unusual of Kenya’s endemic species. It is found in high altitude grassland and scrubs along the central rift valley.

Mt. Kenya Bush-Viper (Bio-Ken) Mt. Kenya Bush-Viper (Bio-Ken)

Herpetologists at the National Museums of Kenya, a government agency that manages museums and historical sites, now fear that two rare snakes found only in Kenya, in two isolated spots, are both at risk of extinction.

“These species are like a rare stamp which someone pays a lot of money for it and wants to keep to themselves,” says Taylor.

Royjan Taylor, director of Bio-Ken Snake Farm. (Health Action International) Royjan Taylor, director of Bio-Ken Snake Farm. (Health Action International)

The snakes face threats from habitat destruction and illegal collection for the European and American exotic pet markets.

Kenya horned viper status, for instance, is unknown, but one expert found it had disappeared from an area in which it was numerous 30 years ago. Its main habitat is within prime farming land so it is at risk from habitat loss.

The two snake species are also faced with a new challenge -- poaching.

Mt. Kenya Bush-Viper (Bio-Ken) Mt. Kenya Bush-Viper (Bio-Ken)

The snakes are 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.

Although the populations of neither species are 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.

National Museums of Kenya National Museums of Kenya

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.

Efforts to conserve the snakes have made more complicated by Kenyan’s belief that snakes are evil as a result poachers are typically seen not as lawbreakers but problem solvers, eliminating a threat to the community.

“I don’t see why we should conserve them because they are deadly, satanic creatures,” Agnes Pili, a resident of Kilifi told National Geographic.

The Kenya horned viper which has two tiny horns atop its head further reinforce this belief that it’s the devil incarnate.

Kenya horned viper (Bio-Ken) Kenya horned viper (Bio-Ken)

Control of this trade from Kenya is very difficult as legislation is not adequate and enforcement is under-resourced and reptiles are not a high priority.

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 proposalKenya put forth to CITES in 2016.

Mt Kenya bush vipers. (Maurice Oniang'o) Mt Kenya bush vipers. (Maurice Oniang'o)

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 has since listed both species “vulnerable and in need of special protection” since 2013 when the Wildlife Management Act became law.