One of the world’s deadliest snakes was recently discovered at a clay brick importing company in Manchester and there was only one man for the job.
Paul Rowley, a senior herpetologist - someone who specialises in the study of reptiles and amphibians - at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) got a call from the RSPCA.
A young Sochurek’s saw-scaled viper had been found amongst a shipment of building materials from Pakistan and his unique skill set, which he has been developing since he was a wide-eyed teenager at Chester Zoo in the late 1970s, was required.
Paul, who has travelled the world to share his life-saving skills, said: “The shipment was delivered to a customer based in Manchester, he spotted the little stowaway and contacted a relative of his who was interested in reptiles.
“They contacted a friend of mine who runs a reptile sanctuary down south, who in turn organised the RSPCA in Manchester to collect it and deliver the snake to us here in Liverpool.
“It was one of those times when social media works really well.”
The snake will join a number of others kept at the higher education institution after arriving in the UK from South Asia over the past eight years.
“These little snakes are small, the typical size is up to 30cm, but have toxic venom and enough to kill people. They are killing tens of thousands of people including areas of sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.
“It is very common for people in poor rural areas to be bitten,” explains Paul.
He says that if a reptile is found in ports or airports in the UK, officials will contact LSTM or other expert reptile centres for guidance.
The recent addition to the LSTM Centre for Snakebite and Research Interventions, will go straight to quarantine for six weeks where it will feed on invertebrates, locusts or mice.
The team will then carefully extract venom from the snake to add to their stock of venom from hundreds of different species of snake. The venom has been used for research and collaborations worldwide to produce life-saving anti-venom.
How is the venom extracted?
Paul, from the Wirral, has been extracting venom for nearly 30 years and says: “I take pride in being gentle with all of our snakes, regardless of size and temperament.
“Extractions are typically done within a few seconds, while gently massaging the venom glands situated on the side of the snake’s head.
“We regularly carry out extractions in batches in the morning and then offer the snakes food in the afternoon. They all readily take the food, so that indicates to us that any minor, short-term, possible discomfort from the extraction process, does not stress or unduly upset them.”
How did it all start?
Paul’s grandmother and four of her sisters all worked at Chester Zoo in the late 1950s, some were zookeepers and others worked as office staff.
He said: “My grandmother worked with the zoo’s owner George Mottershead. I remember him and used to spend time with him as a child. I’d wander around the zoo looking in the cages.
“My grandparents had a glass trophy cup full of snake skins and my dad had a curiosity cabinet. I read a few books about snakes when I was about six. I found them fascinating and kept reptiles and tropical fish.
“My dad worked as an agricultural blacksmith then for a paper mill.
“He also kept birds, a job came up at Chester Zoo and he became their senior bird man in the early 1970s.”
Keeping the family tradition going, Paul’s grandmother asked if he could have a job at the zoo.
He says: “I left school a month early in 1979 when I was 16 and worked in the aquarium. I then moved to the reptiles and became senior reptile keeper until 1992.”
As the zoo started making redundancies in 1993 Paul heard about a job going at the LSTM.
He says: “I had heard about the amazing work they did so it was quite an easy decision to go for it.
“Although I learned so many skills on the job I have never been to university, so I was quite shy, reserved, and down on myself. But a curator at Chester Zoo said to me, ‘you may be working with academics, but you have valuable skills that they don’t’.
“At first I’d wander around the lab not knowing what anything was for, but I eventually found my place. I still wouldn’t class myself as a scientist, I’m a herpetologist.”
Paul was highly commended in the Outstanding Technician of the Year category for The Times Education Awards last month.
“To be nominated was such an achievement for me,” he says.
Until recently, Paul was the only person in the UK extracting venom for medical research and is currently training someone else at LSTM in a similar role: “I know what I’ve done over the years has contributed to saving lives, we have produced thousands of life-saving treatments, but it really is a group effort and I’m part of many researchers and scientists.”
He says he has seen the human impact of the work and has travelled to Africa and South Asia for research.
He recalls speaking with a bite victim, a young girl who was in a hospital in Abuja, Nigeria, in 2001: “She had been bitten and was petrified she was going to die. I showed her two little scars where I had been bitten by a snake and told her I was still okay and explained all about the anti-venom being used in Nigerian hospitals.
“It has stuck in my mind as a really special moment.”
In May 2019, LSTM and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative announced a global research consortium, the Scientific Research Partnership for Neglected Tropical Snakebite.
Funded with £9 million of UK aid from the UK government through the Department for International Development, the consortium was set up to discover and develop monoclonal antibody therapies to significantly improve the efficacy, safety, and affordability of snakebite treatment in India and Africa.
Paul explains LSTM also has strong links with Kenya, so they can house local snakes, and he has been to the East African country to teach local people how to extract venom themselves.
“I’m not sure what projects the research team have planned for 2022, I just know that they will require me to continue to collect venom for them. It’s what I do,” he says.