As dusk falls in Kandui village in Mwingi, Kitui County, the residents’ nightmare unfolds. They begin preparing to defend their houses from their nocturnal invaders – snakes.
While the highly superstitious villagers link the snake invasion to sorcery and witchcraft, unknown to them, the snakes are raiding their homes due to effects of climate change.
An orphaned 15 year old David Mwendwa had his hand deformed and his sight compromised after being bitten by the reptiles.
The director of Regional Institute for Social Enterprise and Environment, Temi Mutia, attributes the rising snake menace to the fast diminishing forest cover.
“The high rate of charcoal burning and the drying up of rivers has driven snakes from their natural habitats to human dwellings, resulting in the conflict,” observes Mutia.
Tales of night snakes bites have reached alarming levels. One such victim is Kitonga Nzengu, whose two children were attacked one night last month. A snake slithered into their room shortly after they went to bed. Nzengu rushed to his children’s rescue after being awoken by their screams only to find that they were under attack by a red cobra.
The highly poisonous black-necked red cobra bit the children’s hands several times as they tried to fight it off. His daughters are now part of growing statistics of people who are lucky to have survived snake attacks in recent years.
A worrying number have succumbed to snake poison. Victims narrate harrowing experiences of having to stay in hospital for long periods, some eventually losing their limbs.
Nzengu, like many residents of the arid Mwingi region, have adapted new ways of keeping marauding snakes at bay. He always keeps a basin full of water outside his house as he goes to sleep. Other desperate measures include burning plastics and keeping cats.
One night in September 2009, Kathini Mulyungi of Ithumbi village was attacked by a cobra. Her right arm was amputated and she had to learn to write afresh with her left hand.
“We were asleep with my two sisters when a black-necked-cobra entered our bedroom and attacked me. It hid under our bed and my mother killed it,” says Kathini.
Despite getting first aid, her hand inflamed very fast, causing her breathing problems as she was being rushed to hospital. Her condition prompted doctors to immediately refer her to Embu Provincial Hospital where her hand was amputated to save her life.
She eventually dropped out of school.
Snake bite incidents have dramatically gone up in the last 10 years, from 20 reported cases in 2003 to more than 300 last year.
Records at the Kenya Wildlife Service office in Mwingi show that the region has the highest cases of snake bites in the country.
“Every month we record 10 to 15 cases of snake bites, as victims come to fill in compensation forms and the numbers continue to increase,” says the area game warden Joseph Njue.
Experts say this could be as a result of the warming climate, which has forced snakes out of previously cooler habitats. The clearing of forests and the frequent droughts force the reptiles to go into people’s houses in search of water.
Residents are now being advised to keep water outside the houses for the snakes.
The only dilemma is that this is an area where water is scarce and there is usually very little to be kept aside for the reptiles.
According to Dr Jacinta Kimiti, a senior lecturer at South Eastern Kenya University, the snake menace in Mwingi is a direct consequence of failure by locals to manage their environment.
Wake up call
“People have cut trees indiscriminately, thus disrupting the ecosystem which we share with wildlife,” says Dr Kimiti, the dean of the School of Environment and Natural Resources Management. “The increased cases of snake bites should be a wake-up call to policy makers and the residents.”
The don explained that snakes can sniff water from many kilometres away.
“The high rate of charcoal burning, erratic rainfall and harsh climatic conditions have driven snakes from their habitats to peoples’ homes,” says Dr Kimiti.
Mwingi district hospital has now established a special department to deal with snake bites. Josphat Mutinda, who heads the unit, says a poor road network and inadequate health facilities in the remote areas have led to fatal incidents of snake bites.
“Snake bite victims should get treatment in less than 24 hours, but some victims reach health centres even after three days,” says Mutinda.
The KWS director general William Kiprono says the government has set aside Sh3 billion to compensate victims of human-wildlife conflicts but confirmed that increased snake bite cases were overwhelming the agency.