Mr. Joash Nyamache Mogaka is a man on a mission. A glance at his social media posts gives a glimpse about what is at his heart and soul. The images and videos that dominate his personal space revolve around wildlife, in its breath and scope.
When I met him at the University of Nairobi a few years back in our our undergraduate studies, he cut the image of a busy man. You see, he and I were doing our first degree as mature students. This simply means we had already ‘‘chewed’’ some years since we left high school, or better still took a ‘longer’ route in the long, windy and treacherous journey in pursuit of academic excellence.
His grey beard was always conspicuous within the precincts of the university. Other students may have well mistaken him for a senior faculty member.
This was unlike many of our colleagues who were young, straight from high school and who still looked green in the game of life, where Mr.Mogaka and I were already considered ‘‘veterans.’’ Anyway, that is a story for another day. As he grappled with environmental management, I was busy studying political science and communication.
That’s how he ended up dealing with snakes and frogs in life, with yours truly now here to write about his escapades.
Our friendship has stretched for about seven straight years now. So out of curiosity and having analyzed his digital footprints I decided to ask him what exactly he does for a living. I realize he is a research assistant at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) where he works as a herpetologist.
Well, in case you don’t know, just like I didn’t, herpetology is the scientific study of reptiles and amphibians!
So my buddy has been basically dealing with snakes, crocodiles, chameleons, lizards, frogs, and anything in between.
I ask him where on earth he gained passion for these creatures, a calling he has honoured with diligence for two decades now.
‘‘I developed the interest in reptiles and amphibians way back in 1999 when I joined the Herpetology section at the National Museums of Kenya as an intern and learned from live samples at the Nairobi Snake Park,’’ he tells me.
The Nairobi Snake Park is a must visit tourist attraction dedicated to the preservation of snakes and other reptiles, and is located at the Museum Hill, the home of the NMK. This is the place where the legendary Omieri, a gigantic 16 foot python that died in 1987, is preserved and available on public display.
For all this time, he has clearly acquired sufficient expertise in this area. So I want to know more. I prod him to really tell me the scope of reptiles and amphibians he has come across and which are the core of what he does.
‘‘I have known different amphibians from frogs, toads and caecilians and different reptiles from lizards, geckos, dwarf geckos, agama, chameleons, crocodiles, tortoises, terrapins, monitor lizards, to different groups of snakes both venomous and non-venomous snakes,’’ says Mr.Mogaka.
From the list I must admit that I honestly did not know what caecilians and terrapins are. So I hit Google, where I can ‘ask anything’ and I discover they are creatures I know well, but you know as they say in these parts of the world, if you want to hide something from somebody, do it in writing, especially in a book!
But because learning is a perpetual experience, I dive in.
Why Snakes and Frogs Are Important
So I really want to know, seriously, why we should care for the so called reptiles and amphibians. After all, in Homa Bay County where I grew up, we used to interact with snakes on a daily basis, we could see the monitor lizards quite often and of course frogs, everywhere. They were just that. Villagers used to kill them with reckless abandon.
‘‘They are very important (creatures). Some are used like pets and also as a tourist attractions. But that’s not all, herpes play a very big role in our ecosystem, where amphibians are very good bio indicators while reptiles like snakes can be a source of income, and they both bring the ecosystem in balance as predator-prey,’’ he observes.
Mr. Mogaka adds that in Kenya now, we have over 220 reptile species, comprising 100 snake species, 100 lizard species, five (5) marine turtle species, five (5) terrapins species, five (5) tortoise species and one (1) crocodile species. There are over 40 species of amphibians.
For those who have phobia for all manner of particularly for reptiles and amphibians, Mr. Mogaka has some education for you. It has to do with the many misconceptions most people have about these creatures, many out of sheer ignorance and others, well, just limited information!
Kissing Frogs Can be Dangerous
But again you remember in fairy tales how kissing a frog might turn one into a prince?
‘‘Many people believe frogs and toads are very poisonous which is not the case, apart from the red banded rubber frog. Some believe all snakes are poisonous too whereas it is only 25 per cent of the snake species that can cause harm while 75 per cent are totally harmless. And of course there are countless myths about snakes and chameleons as well. These animals fear us and they are not here to harm us. They only attack to defend themselves’’ he clarifies.
And by the way, frogs and toads look very similar, but they are not the same. Some little education here again. Frogs mostly have longer legs and smooth, moist skin while toads have shorter legs and dry, rough skin. It is understood that the drier, rougher skin is what makes the toad capable of thriving on land. On the other hand, frogs are more likely to be found near water, for the very reason that their longer legs allow them to hop. However, the toad, with its slightly shorter legs, tends to walk on land.
It is also good to appreciate the fact that some toad species can be very poisonous. Yes, they emit some secretions can cause severe irritation, pain, and tissue damage. According to https://www.poison.org, licking or swallowing these secretions can lead to numbness of the mouth and throat as well as severe and life-threatening effects on the heart, including irregular rhythm of the heart, heart block, reduced blood pressure, and cardiac arrest.
It is advisable to protect vulnerable people like children, pregnant women and senior citizens above 65 years of age from exposure to this kind of poison that can have fatal consequences.
This is the same fate that would befall anyone who handles an amphibian without proper training or precautions, eats them, or mishandles them in any way.
Contrary to our perceptions, and over and above these usual risks, Mr.Mogaka says that naturally, reptiles and amphibians fear humans and not all of them are dangerous. But he feels as a country, we are not doing enough to conserve these and other wildlife at large.
We Need Census for Snakes and Frogs
In May this year, Kenya conducted its first ever national wild life census, as part of efforts to enhance conservation of this important heritage that is facing a poaching onslaught and other climatic changes.
Mr. Mogaka feels, this ambitious intervention needs to be extended to reptiles and amphibians as well.
‘‘We need to know more about these animals and include them during wildlife census. We need to create awareness about them and sensitize the community on their importance,’’ he says.
Unknown to many, Mr. Mogaka observes, a number of amphibian and reptile species are endangered and special interventions may be required to safeguard their survival.
‘’These species include the Mt. Elgon torrent frog, the Irangi paddle frog, all the eight (8) species of caecilians and Taita Hills warty frog. On reptiles we have pancake tortoises, the mountain bush viper and the Kenya horn viper,’’ emphasizes Mr. Mogaka, even as he suggests that community awareness would play a key role in the realization of this objective.
‘‘More and urgent awareness programs needs to be put in place to sensitize the community about them,’’ says Mr.Mogaka.
Wizards and Witches Need Permit to Keep Wild Animals
Did you know that if you wanted to keep reptiles and other wild animals as pets you need a permit from the Kenya Wild Service and the National Museums of Kenya? Now you know.
In this line of thought, I seek to understand one small, but important matter from Mr.Mogaka. In our rural villages, the witches and wizards are dreaded for allegedly keeping some of these wild animals, particularly snakes, and other big cats like leopards for the enhancement of their trade.
So I just wanted to know what he makes of this, other than the requirement of them having the necessary permits from KWS and NMK.
‘‘Yes, the animals are being used wrongfully and these as well results into negative impacts on the life of the animals,’’ he notes.
The fifth born in a family of nine admits that initially he was afraid of snakes, but with regular interaction, he has gotten used to them. He regales his two children with tales of reptiles and amphibians, adding that, luckily they don’t need to fear them.
The daily routine of this 43 year old scientist entails taking stock of reptiles and amphibians from across the country, undertaking regular classification and mentoring upcoming scientists in this area.
‘‘We have a collection of amphibians and reptiles from all parts of Kenya. We always do taxonomic updates and collection management. And we always have students on attachment from various universities for training and affiliates as well,’’ he tells me.
He believes each of us have an obligation to care for the habitats of the wild animals, especially preserving the wetlands which are home to the reptiles and amphibians.
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