By Gitonga Njeru

Smuggling of rare vipers from Kenya to other parts of the world continues to increase despite global travel restrictions associated with COVID-19.

According to an herpetologists researching on the vipers, they are only endemic in Kenya, used as food and as pets in  high end eateries in China, Hong Kong and Myanmar.

They are also used as pets in Western Europe, mostly in the Czech Republic, Germany, Austria, Poland, Netherlands and in some parts of the United Kingdom.

“These rare vipers are either used as pets, for food, or for scientific medical research to develop new drugs or to improve on the current existing ones. The venom of the vipers is then extracted and later used to develop the drugs after extensive research.

“They are used to manufacture drugs that treat non-communicable diseases such as  high blood pressure”, said Victor Wesonga,  from the National Museums of Kenya (NMK).

“Despite many efforts put to conserve them, they end up in the wrong hands’, he added.

He added that habitat destruction further complicates the situation.

The two rare viper species are the Kenya Horned Viper and the Mt. Kenya Bush Viper which breed around the Mt. Kenya region and near Hells Gate National Park in the Rift Valley.

Kenya horned viper
Photo credits: Steve Spawls

They survive in cool weather with temperatures averaging about 10 degrees Celsius or below.

In January 2017, Kenya banned their export unless with a permit from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

This was partly influenced by a decision of 182 member countries in a 2016 meeting in South Africa to list the two species under appendix 2 of the treaty that prohibits their export except on rare occurrence such as for medical research.

 ‘There is no reliable census that has been conducted in recent years to determine their exact numbers, but they are endangered.

“The Vipers are only endemic in Kenya and are one of the most lethal reptiles in the world. One can die in less than ten minutes after a bite if not rushed to hospital.”,says Wesonga.

He observes that more attention should be put on the snakes like what is being done in saving elephants and rhinos. He says that a taskforce needs to be put in place to arrest the situation and give a way forward.

Agencies also explain that more security detail recently is more focused on COVID-19 matters and putting less attention to wildlife conservation.

“They smuggle the very young snakes which even our machines and  dogs cannot detect. Criminals become more sosphisticated as technology advances.

“We are tracking a network of 200 criminals with connections in Mexico, Honduras, Brazil, western Europe, United States, China and  provinces such as Taiwan and Hong Kong. We are doing this with the help of International Police Organization (Interpol).

“They are bred in snake farms until they are fully grown it is when they are sold by the criminals.

“Zoos, pet shops, hotels for meat, research institutions for scientific research. It is a network that has been operating for years”, says sergeant John Kamau from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations.

Kenyan authorities are additionally investigating zoos and scientific research institutions around the globe in their role in trafficking of the two snakes.

They explain that the institutions could either be directly involved or buying them without knowledge from suspected criminals.

“For sure based on investigations, the prices of these snakes have increased by 25 percent since 2017 when Kenya banned their sale. Even then, they were being traded without a CITES or government of Kenya permit.

“We are investigating the largest zoos in the United States and Mexico, Europe and China.

“The average price of both species is between $200 to about $250 for pet shops. It is much higher selling it to zoos, about seven times more the value and slightly more for research institutions”, adds Kamau.

The venom of most viper species is used in the development of drugs that treat hypertension, diabetes, different types of viral and bacterial infections as well as anti venom research.

“Something that is worrying is that there is an increasing trend of corruption among African countries and not just Kenya. So, fighting wildlife crime becomes a challenge and many conservation gains are reversed.

“The courts often acquit the culprits even after enough evidence has been presented”, says Risky Agenda, a Mammologist at NMK.

Among other snakes that were banned by Kenya that same year is the Sand Boa(Gongylophis colubrinus) is found in Eastern Kenya around Kitui County. It is used mostly as a pet in the Middle East and Europe according to presentations from the recent CITES meeting.

Rock python

During the CITES meeting Kenya proposed to list both viper species under Appendix II of the convention, which includes species not currently threatened with extinction but that may become so if their trade is not regulated. The proposals were however approved by all 182 participating member nations.

Kenya is now working with the other CITES member states to monitor illegal trade across international borders. Between the 1980s to date, about 450 of the snakes have been trafficked but the most shocking numbers have happened between 2017 to date.

“After the ban, more trafficking took place and more needs to be looked into as to why the sudden surge. This is based on cross border arrest police records in different countries. Majority of the cases go undetected, says Dr.Paula Kahumbu, an Ecologist and the Executive Director of Wildlife Direct, a conservation Non-governmental Organisation. 

She adds that the international trade in Appendix II species can only occur with an export permit from the relevant country’s authorities, and the separate restrictions on export of the two vipers that Kenya enacted soon after the CITES listing makes international trade in the two species illegal, except under certain limited circumstances, such as for medical research.

Currently, even the trade in viper eggs and body parts is now regulated and requires a government-issued permit to take place.

“This means that if one has to trade the vipers, you need a permit from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) or CITES”, she added.

“So far, no one has ever applied for a permit to farm them or even export them”, she further confirmed.

Dr.Kahumbu added that both vipers should eventually be included in Appendix I, which is reserved for species threatened with extinction and permits trade only for non-commercial purposes, such as research.

A major obstacle to many investigations is that officers are either bribed or threatened to be murdered if they continue investigating wildlife crimes. 

“Sometimes, investigations can go on for   decades as we are constantly working under fear. If we decline cash offers to withdraw investigations and charges, we risk being murdered.

The criminals have a network of connections including local and international contacts.

“They are well linked to politicians and influecial policy makers. So, for us to go down, it is not a struggle for them”, says Kamau.

He says that the smugglers are often too powerful that they even bribe intelligence networks. There are different ranks in the criminal networks. From the one who catches the snakes all the way to the one who makes the final transaction.

Another junior officer who opted to remain anonymous also described a plan by the Kenya Police Service to work closely with Interpol to crack down on criminals and international gangs. He hinted that the government is forming a special taskforce on wildlife trafficking to be launched within this year.

“Special attention should be put to protect the two vipers and other vulnerable wildlife incoming months. This species are very important since they are only found in Kenya”, says Dr. Kahumbu.

According to Dr Richard Thomas, head of communications at Traffic, an organization based in Cambridge, England, wildlife smuggling further increases the risk of Zoonotic diseases.

Dr. Thomas who has also investigated wildlife trafficking for over 40 years confirms that ilicit trade has led to recent surges of the Corona virus.

He quotes different published studies in Journal viruses, October 2019 issue, March 2020 issue and several other independent studies.

“The studies showed that Corona viruses originated mostly from bats being sold in open air markets in China. There is also an increased propability that future Corona viruses will originate from China.

“The viruses are found in the feces of bats and can enter a host via the eye. They can also originate from other wildlife.

“Different studies show that a 90 percent genetic overlap in Corona viruses had been found in Pangolins. This is very true in a study conducted in February this year by South China Agricultural University.

He advocates for better legislative frameworks between countries and improved treaceability measures to identify contaminated commodities even in legalized wildlife trade.

“There are also other wildlife species that are traded that need to be captured that are suspected to be SARS-COV2 carriers. But importantly, there is need for consumer behavior change”, he said this during a Webinar organized by Internews Earth Journalism Network (EJN).

This story was made possible with a grant from Internews (EJN).