John spent two weeks of November in Ubundu, a town about 100 km south of Kisangani and the last town accessible by vehicle. In order to reach our study area and the future Lomami National Park, it is a day by dugout up the Lualaba River and then a couple days by bicycle and on foot to the Lomami River. John was monitoring bushmeat arriving from the TL2 study area to the town of Ubundu and he was also preparing for a workshop with the chiefs from all the villages of the area. This is when he met the snake boys – he wrote me this account:
As usual, in Ubundu I stayed at the Catholic parish guest house.
Yesterday, when I was dismayed because a harmless snake was killed on church grounds by one of the parish staff, the curée told me about a local boy I would find interesting. The next morning, after mass he arrived at my door with a young man he introduced as Likuta, the snake boy.
Likuta returned the next morning with his brother, carrying two tubular cages of woven rattan, and a hollow bamboo stem, all containing live snakes. Likuta and his brother opened each cage dumping three live gaboon vipers on the ground in front of me. The snakes were torpid and the boys handled them casually, picking each of them up by their mid-section to show them to me.
Likuta told us that he had kept the biggest of the vipers for eight months already, and that the snake ate one to two young house rats a week. The smallest, which he kept in the bamboo stem, was a voracious feeder with a preference for live fish.
Likuta explained that he first began handling snakes when he was a school boy. His original inspiration was a bit mysterious. “My grandfather encouraged me,” he stated simply, though the old man had not been a snake handler himself.
Likuta was clear about his current motivation. He caught and kept vipers in the hope of eventually selling them. Some time back he had met a man from Kisangani who had mentioned an interest in buying gaboon vipers. The man had never returned.
“I see many kinds of snakes,” Likuta told me, describing half a dozen species in addition to the vipers that he regularly captured. “I kill them and eat them.”
When I explained our interest in discovering what kind of snakes lived in the forests of the TL2, Likuta was genuinely interested. He described how to hunt arboreal snakes in trees, and how once he had found a python with a girth equal to his leg. “That one was too big to bring back to the village so I let him go” he explained.
Anyone willing to take on a herpetological survey of the TL2 will find a ready collaborator in Likuta.
Ubundu, 25 November 2010.
Final note: Wikipedia reports that the Gaboon viper, Bitis gabonica, is not only the largest member of its genus but it has the longest fangs and the highest venom yield of any venomous snake. Even an average bite from an average sized specimen is potentially fatal. Both the gaboon viper and the rhinoceros viper (Bitis nasicornis) live in Africa’s central rainforest and are found in TL2.