…People think I am evil — Dr Edem Eniang
…Keeper of 200 venomous snakes
By Emmanuel Una, Calabar
Three boxes full of poisonous snakes, spiders, millipedes and other reptiles, smuggled from Cameroon and intercepted by the Customs, have been handed to the Department of Forestry and Natural Environment Management of the University of Uyo. The Head of the Depatment, Dr Edem Eniang, a snake expert who took delivery of the reptiles, speaks on the snake business.
Dealing with snakes can be scary and dangerous. How did you come into dealing with snakes?
My dealing with snakes has some providence in it. I had my very first encounter with snakes as a child. According to my parents, at the age of eight or nine in the late seventies, my elder brother used to set traps in the forest and, whenever he returned to boarding school, I would be the one to inspect the traps.
So your upbringing has something to do with your present career
I gained a lot of knowledge working with my elder brother. One of the days I went to inspect the traps, I met a python caught by one of the traps and I thought it was dead.
My father used to tell me that whenever I had to go to the forest and there was an animal in the trap, I should not try to remove it since I didn’t have much strength. I should just cut the trap stick and drag the animal home on the ground with the trap, so I did that with the python.
When I got to the village and the head hunter of my community saw it, he asked me where I got the python from and I told him, he went inside his hut and brought hot drink, prayed for me and spat on my palm and said from that day I was the king of the forest. When I got home, some people came out to help me including the son of the head hunter to kill the snake.
As one of them went to cut a banana leaf to spread and cut the python, someone tried to touch it thinking it had swallowed something. The python rose up and everybody fled and the python ended up biting the soil. They had to use gun to kill it because it was so big and up till today, according to records, that is still the biggest python caught in that village.
When you left the village, you still had something to do with snakes?
Over time, anytime I came home on holiday from Jos where I schooled, some weaver birds were living on my father’s coconut tree and snakes would climb the tree to eat the birds’ eggs and even the birds. Sometimes the snakes would fall from the tree and my father would ask me to go and kill them and I would go with a machete but I would end up looking and the snakes and keep hesitating until the snakes would crawl into the bush.
I could not kill any because the way the snakes would look at me sympathetically, and I would let them go. One day my father gave me the beating of my life and I told him I was sorry but the way the snakes looked at me, I could not kill them. From then, I never knew working with snakes would be my profession.
You studied snakes in the university then?
It was with that background that I went to the university to study forestry but I changed courses severally. From pure agriculture I moved to agric economics, then forestry and finally to wildlife biodiversity in University of Uyo, Ogoja campus. When I did my masters, I worked on gorillas, monkeys and chimpanzees at the Cross River State National Park.
And for my PhD at University of Ibadan, I continued on wildlife but, along the line, my supervisor, Professor Francis Omobode, died and I was forced to look for a new supervisor and that supervisor, Professor Ibukun Ayodele, was the man who forced me to study snakes.
I was dismayed and so frustrated by his insistence that I had to withdraw from University of Ibadan to stay in Akwa Ibom and I did not visit Ibadan for almost two years. But people told me to go back, after all I had done two years of data collection, and appeal to my supervisor that he should allow me to continue with my study of primates. But when I went back, he insisted that almost all the books in the UI library were on primates; so what new knowledge would I add by studying primates?, so I must study snakes and add to knowledge. This was how I went back to study snakes.
Any other influence apart from your supervisor’s?
One day a professor of snakes from University of Rome who was in Calabar to study snakes in the country walked into my office and asked for a snake skin as evidence of the presence of that kind of snake in the area.
While working at the Bay Mountain in Obudu, my boys had killed a big python almost two metres long and they cooked the meat and ate but kept the skin for me and I had it kept in my office.
The prof asked me what I was studying and I told him primates but he said no, that I had to evolve. I asked him how. He said I should study reptiles because they are more lucrative than monkeys. Snakes are everywhere in the villages, towns and not primates that you spend months to find in the forest. Professor Lukalu then linked me up with snake experts and I went to South Africa to meet a certain Professor Jackville to learn how to handle snakes.
From there I found myself in Australia where I saw a state -of- the-art serpentorium where snakes were kept in cages. The whole building was constructed to fit the life of snakes in the wild. If it lives in the rock, a rocky environment is constructed to fit it and if it is water, the same thing. I was so scared of the snakes until two other students joined me and, from there, I was able to build my confidence to touch the snakes.
From there I went to China to see a snake farm and then I went to Bangkok, Thailand to see another snake farm where I joined the operators to harvest over a thousand snakes a day to send to industries.
It was there that I saw the amaloyzine snake that had no venom and I started handling the snake with much confidence by rolling it on my body and I became comfortable with snakes. That really exposed me to snakes until I came back to the University of Ibadan and studied the biodiversity of snakes in the South-south and South-east of Nigeria from Rivers State up to Obudu in Cross River State for my PhD.
What did you find out about the snake biodiversity in the South-south and South-east?
My PhD became the first comprehensive study of snakes in southern Nigeria; it was from that study that it became clear that there is more snake diversity in southern Nigeria than in northern Nigeria. Earlier studies by people like Henry Gashaw showed that the North has about 45 species of snakes but my study found out that the South has over 60 species of snakes and additional three species which were not known to science as of that time in 2004 when I did my PhD. There could be more with instruments like camera tracking which we use now.
How has working with snakes affected your life?
Working with snakes has become part and parcel of my life even as there was a little bit of providence in my becoming a snake practitioner. I took over 200 snakes from Ethiopia to United States because I had authority from the relevant body and was given presidential treatment at the J F Kennedy Airport.
I have published over 80 articles in intellectual global journals to feed the world with quality knowledge on the diversity of snakes Nigeria. Now I cover up to western Nigeria. There is a gecko species named after me. I discovered it in 2006 and, in 2009, it was named after me. I usually spend weeks in the forest to track snakes. I have been in charge of snake studies at IITA, Ibadan and EXONMOBIL when they do oil exploration in the forests.
How lucrative is the snake business?
The world is advancing in science. Venomous snakes are extremely useful in the manufacture of drugs for stroke, depression and high blood pressure. The treatment for snake bite is venom. Snakes venoms are gold. Some people study snakes for stem cell research. They use the snakes to study how they could lose their tails and still live.
How are they able to do that? African snakes have the best venom. And venom is costlier than gold. Those smuggling snakes know the value. Snakes are used as pets and security and cheaper to feed than dogs. We get orders for snakes from individuals and organisations to be used as pets and security guards and that brings a lot of cash.
Are there many of you into the snake business in the country?
At the level of PhD level, we are just four. Two are whites who come in and go out. The industry is untapped. It is a virgin land. In Gombe and Sokoto among others, when they have flooding, snake bites are rampant because the flood flushes the snakes out of their hiding places and they seek for places that are warm, and they bite people because people too seek such places.
People are given contracts to supply venom but they can’t find venom or the right one. We need an industry where we can breed snakes and produce venom for appropriate treatment when people are bitten by snakes. We can diversify the economy. Snakes produce more expensive products than any other animal and in hot demand all over the world.
We are doing mega million projects that are not creating employment but snakes are cheap to produce and feed. People are coming into the country to export live snakes because we are not taking advantage of it.
The skin of snakes is used to make bags and shoes which are very expensive. There is so much snake could be used for. It can also be used for the sport called snake wrangling that can bring a lot of money because millions of people throng the stadium to watch the sport. We can do ecotourism with snakes. At Ihiala in Anambra State pythons are not killed but worshipped.
Snakes are very important then.
Snakes are about the most important species of animal in the world. If anybody is interested in the environment, it is the snake that he should study because anything it feeds on, it takes it whole without leaving anything out. If it is swallowing a human being, it takes him whole with the hair and nails and digests him; ditto for the chicken along with the feathers. The cattle only eat grass. Snakes transcend the whole environment.
They glide in the air, live underground, in water and in the desert and icecap. Also you cannot find other predators like crocodiles, leopards and the like everywhere but you can find the python. Snakes are everywhere.
How do you get snakes for your studies?
You find them on the road side, farmers kill and throw them away and sometimes cook them for food. Wherever I see a snake, I take it and, when people see me do it, they think I am evil or an occultist. Wherever I see a snake, I pursue until I take it. There was an incident when my wife and I were taking our first son who was seriously sick to the University of Uyo Teaching Hospital from Calabar and on the way we saw a snake crossing the road. I stopped, parked the car and pursued it and caught it with my bare hands and gave my wife my camera to take my picture with the snake and she was like ‘my God, what have snakes done to my marriage’.
That was when I knew how important snakes have become to me. I have become so preoccupied with snakes. Everybody is against snakes but I advocate for them. I have become their senior advocate.
The smuggled snakes, how many species are there?
We found ten different species. The smugglers claimed there were 146 but after five days of thorough examination by ten scientists we found more than 200 snakes. All the snakes are extremely venomous.
Why do you think the snakes were smuggled?
The snakes were going to Luxemburg. The smugglers did not follow due process by obtaining the permit of the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Wildlife and Flora and Fauna. I have taken over 200 snakes from Ethiopia to the United States because I had authority from the society and I was given presidential treatment at the J F K Airport.
So we can diversify our economy, create employment and make money through ecotourism with snakes.