Choosing a Kenyan Sand Boa
R.D. and Patti Bartlett
Typically clad in scales of orange and brown, like other boas, the Kenyan sand boa is a powerful constrictor and an ambush predator. Lying just beneath the surface of the sand, the Kenyan sand boa responds to the weight of a lizard or small rodent treading the surface with a fierce snap upwards, their coils constricting the prey.
Despite their propensity for burrowing (or maybe because of it), Kenyan sand boas, Eryx colubrinus loveridgei, have a devout following. There is a sufficient diversity in color and prices to interest both the beginning and the advanced hobbyists.
Kenyan sand boas became popular about 25 years ago, and with the advent of new captive-bred color phases – anerythristic, albino, snow, etc. – their popularity has again soared. Hobbyists are now striving to develop an all orange color morph.
Origin and Life Span
The sand boas are of Old World distribution. They are all snakes of arid- and semi-arid lands, and are very efficient burrowers. The Kenyan sand boa comes, of course, from East Africa. If one is looking for an appearance analogy, the Kenyan sand boa is rather like the rosy boa of the southwestern United States, but the Kenyan sand boa is far more secretive.
Documented captive longevity for this snake is more than 20 years.
The Kenyan sand boa has a stout yet supple build. At 20 inches in length, the female Kenyan sand boa is the larger sex. Males are often only 12 to 14 inches long.
The Kenyan sand boa has smooth scales toward the head, weakly keeled ones in the center and strongly keeled scales toward the tail. The lower jaw is noticeably countersunk, an adaptation that allows this snake to burrow without getting a mouthful of sand. The tail is very short, thick and pointed. Cloacal spurs, proportionately larger on the males than on the females, are present. In fact, the spurs of some females are occluded by a fold of skin.
The eyes of this boa are directed laterally, and the head is barely wider than the neck. The rostral scale (the scale at the tip of the nose) is large and assists this snake in its burrowing. The orange ground color is variably marked with brown spots, which often alternate along each side of the back. A row of smaller brown spots is present along each lower side.
As mentioned above, there are several well-established color variations.
Appropriately named, if given a substrate of several inches of clean sand, the Kenyan sand boa will spend the majority of its time completely buried beneath the surface. At other times, it may opt to lie with only the top of its head (to the level of its eyes) exposed. In this latter position the snake can both see approaching prey or predators as well as feel their vibrations as they move across the sand.
Remember, though, that Kenyan sand boas tend to be snappy. They will bite fingers that approach them from above or that probe for them beneath the sand. However, once in hand they are generally tractable.
Because they are small and inactive, Kenyan sand boas can be maintained in fairly small terraria. An adult pair or trio will live well in a terrarium having a floor space of 12 by 30 inches.
The fact that a pair or a trio of these snakes can live nicely in a tank of only 20-gallon size contributes to their popularity. They do well with a substrate of several inches of clean sand, but can live very well on (and under) a newspaper substrate. Because of their burrowing lifestyle, when kept in sand, these snakes require little in the way of cage furniture.
If you have a sand substrate, clean it with a kitty litter pooper-scooper as necessary and replace the sand every month or so. The tank should get a thorough cleaning about three times a year.
Kenyan sand boas like it warm and dry and should have a temperature variation. If one end of the terrarium is heated, the boas will choose their preferred temperature. This may be different at one time of year than at another. One end of the terrarium should be kept close to room temperature (72 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit) while the other end should be about 10 degrees warmer. You can raise the temperature at that end by using a heating pad or heater under the tank or overhead lights, which may be useful if you are growing plants in the tank.
Heavily gravid (pregnant) females often prefer to be at least a little warmer than normal. When the females are gravid, heat the surface of the sand with an overhead flood lamp by day, and keep the sand warmed at night with an undertank heating pad.
Although these boas seldom drink, keep a small, shallow, dish of fresh water always available.
In the wild, these little boas are said to eat invertebrates, lizards and small rodents. Captives usually readily eat small lab mice. Neonate Kenyan sand boas are large enough to eat pinky mice. Adult males may need half grown mice, but adult females of this snake can eat small adult lab mice.
You can tell whether your snake is hungry by watching its movements. For the most part, a Kenyan sand boa will lie still until it is ready to eat. Then it will emerge from its hiding spot to prowl its territory in search of food. When you see your snake begin to move, it is probably time to place a pre-killed mouse or two in its habitat. It is most likely to move at night.
Although many hobbyists believe it best to feed a snake live food, the bite of a live rodent, if it is not eaten immediately, or if it is gripped and constricted incorrectly by the snake, can hurt or kill or snake. We suggest that only pre-killed prey be offered.
Any creature with teeth can bite and Kenyan sand boas often do. They are more apt to bite than many snake species. Even when regularly handled, many sand boas retain this tendency. Although this snake is fairly small, its strike is startlingly fast and its jaws are strong. A bite is unpleasant.
We have found it better, both for the snakes and for our fingers, to lift the little serpents free of the substrate with a small cagehook and pass them to your free hand. Once lifted, the sand boas usually no longer try to bite. Support the snake as fully as possible. Do not handle heavily gravid females or soon after a snake has fed.
Wash your hands thoroughly after handling your snake or working in its terrarium to protect yourself from the possibility of contracting Salmonella, a bacteria that is often carried by reptiles and amphibians and which can cause illness in humans.
Kenyan sand boas are immensely hardy and, if terrarium temperatures are suitably warm, seldom develop any medical problems. Occasionally, thermal burns from a malfunctioning hot rock or improperly baffled bulb or ceramic heater will occur. Rodent bites can be very serious. Never leave a live rodent unattended in your snake's cage.
Mouth rot (infectious stomatitis) can occur if a snake's teeth are broken, the mouth lining is injured, or if a struggling rodent being constricted bites the snake.
Respiratory distress can occur if the cage temperature changes radically, especially if humidity is high or the cage is damp. Blister disease can occur if the sand is allowed to become damp, and especially if the cage is both wet and dirty.
Inclusion body disease (IBD) is a very communicable, insidious and eventually fatal affliction of boas and pythons with no known cure.
It is important that your snake shed fully in a timely manner (not too early in the cycle, and not too late). Improper shedding (retained eyecaps, etc.) may occasionally occur if your snake is not properly hydrated or if the cage humidity is too low.