Kenyan sand boas can make great first reptiles.
Native not only to Kenya, the Kenyan sand boa (Eryx colubrinus) is also found in Egypt, western Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Chad, Niger and northern Somalia. Because of its extensive geographical range, some keepers refer to it as the East African sand boa, but the common name of Kenyan sand boa is still the most widely accepted in the pet trade.
john virata/snake courtesy brotherboas.com
Female Kenyan sand boas grow to about 2 feet in length while males are smaller at around 20 inches.
My first contact with the Kenyan sand boa occurred more than two decades ago, and quite by accident. The impression was a lasting one, and I have never been without them in my rather diverse collection of reptiles ever since. A local animal control officer passed along two specimens that were apparently left behind in an abandoned apartment. My estimation is that they were 2 or 3 years old, and a few years later I would figure out that they were both female. I was immediately taken by the complex dorsal pattern and pleasing coloration, and utterly fascinated by the peculiar head shape, obviously designed for burrowing. Another source of curiosity was the stout tail, resembling another head, with its enlarged rough scales for protection.
In those days I had no Internet, very few reliable books on reptile husbandry, and no REPTILES magazine to guide me. I gathered as much information as possible, and eventually found a male with which to pair my two females. I was rewarded with a successful breeding project and fascinating, long-term pets.
While the Kenyan sand boa may not be as popular in the snake hobby as a ball python, it has developed a special niche in herpetoculture due to its interesting appearance, relatively placid disposition and simple husbandry requirements. Even the largest individual is manageable for the keeper with limited space. And while some of the morphs now available are resulting in new enthusiasts, many keepers seem to agree that the natural salmon with dark blotches coloration of a Kenyan sand boa is still hard to beat.
Kenyan Sand Boas Can Make Excellent Pets
A Kenyan sand boa is an excellent beginner snake, and if you like the idea of frequently handling your pet, this might be the snake for you. It doesn’t get very large—adult females typically max out at a bit more than 2 feet, and males around 20 inches—and is usually quite accommodating. Although most sand boas are very well behaved, an occasional individual may be slightly jumpy, but from my personal experience, bites are rare. Even the most spirited sand boa prefers to try to escape, jerk or spasm rather than bite.
I received the only non-feeding bite I’ve ever gotten earlier this year, from a gravid female. I was inspecting her, and it became clear she wasn’t interested in tolerating the intrusion. Of the many years I’ve been keeping this species, it was the first time I’ve experienced such an incident.
Most bites are from a feeding response, where the snake simply mistakes its keeper’s hand for food. This can be prevented with a confident, yet gentle method. Do not reach for the front third of a sand boa’s body approaching from above the snake. This may trigger a feeding impulse or startle the snake, and doing so may automatically put the animal on the defensive.
Instead, when reaching for your snake, reach to lift it from beneath the middle of its body. If you continue to do so every time, the snake will soon figure out that your hand is not a rodent that’s being offered. Of course, you could also use a small snake hook, as well.
When handling your sand boa, be sure to provide sufficient support along its body. Unlike some other snakes, sand boas are not built for climbing, so you need to prevent an accidental fall that could result in stress and injury to the snake. Provide plenty of support.
If you decide to keep a Kenyan sand boa, be prepared for a long-term commitment. One of my two first Kenyan sand boas I mentioned at the start of this article is still with me, and is nearing approximately 26 years of age. The only sign of slowing down she has demonstrated has been to stop producing offspring after about 15 years. I decided to retire her from breeding, but she is still a healthy, wonderful pet, and one that I hope will be with me for many more years.
Kenyan Sand Boa Basic Housing
The Kenyan sand boa’s burrowing nature turns some keepers off, as some equate the display of a sand boa cage with that of an empty one. Kenyan sand boas do make regular appearances, however, and if you’re patient, observing their fascinating behaviors can be quite rewarding. And once a few basic requirements are met, the captive maintenance of a Kenyan sand boa is about as straightforward as snake keeping gets.
This solid little boa is not generally flighty or nervous, but like all captive creatures, individuals need to feel secure in order to do remain healthy. Once established, they are curious snakes that poke their noses out of the substrate and explore their territories.
The average adult Kenyan sand boa can be content in a 10-gallon aquarium or other enclosure with similar floor dimensions, though I recommend a larger enclosure for the occasional super-sized female. A plastic storage container of suitable dimensions, with air holes punched along the sides, will also work well if placed in a heated shelving unit. Even though it is not a sand boa’s nature to climb, never underestimate its strength and agility when it comes to the art of escaping. Lids for any enclosures must be tightly fitted and secured.
Despite its common name, a sand boa does not need a substrate of sand to thrive. I have kept and bred them on a variety of substrates, including not just play sand, but also aspen bedding, coconut mulch and even newspaper.
Because a sand boa spends much of its time at the bottom of its enclosure, its primary heat source should come from below. A hot spot should be concentrated at one end of the enclosure and maintained at approximately 95 degrees Fahrenheit. For plastic storage containers set up in a shelving rack system, a variety of heat cables controlled with a thermostat are available and widely used by breeders and hobbyists. This method provides governed warmth that is especially effective for heating a number of containers. For a single terrarium, an under-tank heating pad designed for use with reptiles should be positioned beneath one side of the tank following manufacturer instructions, and it should be in use 24/7. A thermostat can be used to maintain the temperature in the warm end at 95 degrees. To create warmer ambient air temperature in a terrarium with a screen lid, an overhead incandescent lamp can also be used during the day if necessary to provide the recommended temperature. The cooler side of the enclosure should be around 80 degrees, and a drop to the mid 70s overnight is satisfactory.
If your preference is an eye-catching naturalistic environment, keep in mind this is a burrowing species with a penchant for rearranging the furniture. Cork bark and other durable yet lightweight cage décor is recommended. Avoid using heavy rocks, or anything that could injure your sand boa if it falls over. Climbing branches, plants, etc. may result in an attractive enclosure, but a sand boa will not utilize such furniture. Hiding places can also be provided, but again, may not be necessary because sand boas are burrowers that seek security beneath their substrate. Even if you don’t use sand and use newspaper or another material, your sand boa will likely hide beneath it. That said, it couldn’t hurt to provide a hide box anyway.
Like most breeders, I am inclined to keep my snakes in separate enclosures. In the past, I have kept Kenyan sand boas communally without any problems, but if you choose to keep more than one together, be sure to separate them at mealtime. Provide a small water bowl and replace with clean water as needed.
Kenyan Sand Boa Morphs and Breeding
Not only is the Kenyan sand boa one of the best beginner snakes, it reproduces readily in captivity, making a sand boa breeding project perfect for beginner breeders to start with. The sand boa is a live-bearing species, too, which is another plus for the keeper who is just starting out and who may want to avoid purchasing an incubator and dealing with eggs.
Adults exhibit sexual dimorphism, making it easy to decipher the genders by comparison. Adult females are bulkier, and as mentioned will reach a little over 2 feet in length, while males are smaller and rarely exceed 20 inches.
Selective-breeding of particular individuals to get desirable traits through generations is certainly possible. This can be done for visual appeal, such as producing animals with excess yellow, brown or orange coloration. These naturally occurring variations are likely endemic and geographic in origin, but selectively breeding sand boas that exhibit them over generations will often result in enhancing the desired trait. Kenyan sand boas are already beautiful in their most natural form, but to make things even more exciting, there are also plenty of color morphs to choose from.
Some of the morphs currently available include Albino, Anerythristic, Snow, Paradox, Nuclear, Reduced Pattern, Striped, Peppered, Tigers, Dodoma, Flame, Splash, Calico, and Mocha (Hypo). Aside from its obvious appeal as a pet snake, I believe the Kenyan sand boa will continue to gain popularity thanks to so many new morphs and new combinations yet to be discovered.
Breeding for other non-visual traits, such as personality and size, can also be accomplished, although this is less commonplace with reptiles than with other types of pets.
To trigger mating, a cool, dormant period for the adult snakes prior to pairing is recommended. A slight drop down to room temperature is enough to simulate a seasonal change. I shut off the heat source around Christmas, and start warming the snakes up around the end of February. I have had success reproducing sand boas without cooling, but for long-term breeding and more reliable results, I recommend cycling them.
Potential breeders must have adequate body weight before cooling. Because they will not be able to digest their food without higher temperatures, stop feeding them two weeks before, as well as during the cooling period. During brumation your snakes will still need access to drinking water. With minimal intrusion, check on them around once a week to make sure there is no spilled water, and for overall inspection.
After cooling and the cage temperatures return to normal, I ease my Kenyans back into feeding by offering an under-sized meal of a smaller-than-usual mouse. A few days afterward, they are usually ready to dive back into consuming full-sized prey.
After a couple of weeks, I start the introductions. Usually breeding is initiated within a few hours. If any of my snakes are in a shed cycle, I wait until they are finished before pairing them up because they typically have no interest in breeding when they’re in shed.
To start the breeding action, I usually introduce my adult sand boas throughout April to August. The time frame varies, depending on a number of factors, including the amount of food the female has eaten (she needs to have ample weight to be ready to breed) and the weather. I have had baby Kenyans born in every month from October to April. In fact, one of my females has babies on or around Easter weekend every year.
I always introduce the males into the females’ enclosures. The only reason I do it this way is because I keep the females in larger enclosures, so by putting a male in with a female they have more room. This method works for me, but I can’t say from personal experience if reversing the introductions would change the results.
Keep pairs together for three days to a week, then separate them and offer food to both males and females. By repeating this for a month or so, your sand boas should have plenty of time to complete the task. Sometimes you may witness courtship and copulation, sometimes you won’t. I’ve had successful sand boa reproduction without knowing any mating had taken place.
If you are concerned that the chosen mates are not exhibiting any interest in breeding, try introducing a second male to get the figurative fires burning. The two males will become aware of each other’s presence in an instant, and often combat begins. I don’t let it get very far, no more than five minutes, even though I have never seen any damage result from this practice. There are stories about males biting one another, though, so I never leave them unattended. Just the scent and presence of the additional male is often enough to get the previously uninterested male to snap into breeding mode.
You may notice some subtle behavioral changes in a gravid female, such as a change in disposition or appetite, and as you might expect, a swollen abdomen. She will also spend a great deal of time stretched out with her stomach positioned directly over the under-tank heat source. Belly heat is especially vital for a gravid female during gestation, in order for the babies to develop properly. The cage temperature and hot spot may have some influence on the length of gestation, too, which is typically a little less than four months.
Gravid female sand boas tend to eat enthusiastically until the last few weeks before their due date, when they completely lose interest in anything but basking on the heat source. While it’s important to keep a watchful eye on the snake and its progress, find a balance to allow her as much privacy as possible. A little peek once a day is acceptable, but continually disrupting her can cause unnecessary stress.
I prefer to switch to layers of paper substrate during gestation, or at least prior to the big day, because it’s far less messy during the birthing process and makes finding all the babies less complicated. Kenyan sand boa litter sizes range from six to 20, and larger females have been reported to produce more than 30 babies.
I have never had a sand boa give birth during the daytime, it always happens overnight, presumably for the safety of the darkness and because there are less intrusions. In the wild, it may also help that nighttime is cooler, allowing the babies time to retreat without getting cooked in the blazing sun.
After having her babies, the female may enter a shed cycle before accepting food. I always offer a small prey item immediately after I remove the babies and clean the enclosure. About half the time she will eat, so it’s worth a try. After a sand boa gives birth, it can be startling how much she hollows out! Not to worry though; it doesn’t take long for a female to gain back her robust figure with regular feedings.
I set new babies up in a plastic shoebox, in what is basically a miniature version of the adults’ setup. I keep the inside simple, using only paper lining, a small disposable cardboard hide box and a small water bowl. Many breeders set each of the babies up individually right from the beginning. This is perfectly acceptable, although my method has served me well for many years.
I keep the entire litter together in the same container until they start feeding, though I don’t offer them any food until they have all had their fist shed, which always happens within a week of their being born.
When feeding, I will move a baby sand boa to a separate feeding enclosure and offer it a pinky mouse, dead or alive. Once a baby accepts this item, it is moved to its own enclosure; if it doesn’t, it goes back in with the others. The process is repeated until each baby has taken its first meal, usually after a week or so. Once they are all feeding and set up individually, babies are offered food every five to seven days.
Any snake enthusiast can enjoy keeping the Kenyan sand boa. Its ease of care and breeding is appealing to beginners, and the popularity, consistent value and increasing morph possibilities offer good opportunities to the professional breeder. After all the years I’ve kept and bred this unique little boa I still consider it a fascinating and rewarding member of my menagerie.
Darren Boyd is a professional herpetoculturist and writer. He owns and operates The Reptile Rainforest, an education-based commercial reptile breeding business in Kemptville, Ontario, Canada. He has been working with reptiles for more than 20 years, and he has experience with many other exotic animals.