Pandemic Hits Egypt’s Oldest Snake Business

Tolba Family’s Reptilian Inheritance in Danger
Salah Tolba seen playing with a snake along with his grandson in his zoo in Abu Rawash village, Giza city. (by Menna A. Farouk)

In the Haram neighborhood of Abu Rawash village in Giza, the Tolba family is known for a peculiar skill: for over a century, generations of the family have dedicated thenselves to the art of hunting and catching reptiles and snakes in the desert for researchers and specialized scientific centers. Indeed, the family home is a destination for collectors and researchers as the Tolba go about their business, not bothering about its dangers and difficulties.

“We have been doing this for decades out of love for the profession,” Hajj Salah Tolba, the owner of the business, told Majalla. 

Tolba, 54, inherited the profession from his father and is teaching it to his children and grandchildren. The family sells reptiles, especially snakes, to research centers who use its venoms in manufacturing medicine.

Tolba said that there are up to 36 species of indigenous Egyptian snakes, of which only 9 are poisonous, including in the foremost among them, the Egyptian cobra.

HUNTING TRIPS

The Tolba family begins its seasonal hunting trip, with the beginning of the summer season each year and continues from April until October. In recent years, the family began to extend its hunting activities beyond the pyramid area.

“Sometimes we go on hunting trips to the Sinai desert, which is filled with many types of reptiles, and the journey may extend to the south of the country to the Egyptian-Sudanese borders, at the Toshka and Shalateen areas,” Tolba said.

He added that this region is full of many of the rarest types of animals and wild reptiles that come out of their holes at the beginning of the summer, to enjoy the warmth of the sun after the end of the winter hibernation period.

A REPTILIAN ZOO

Tolba and his family have built a zoo in Abu Rawash village where they display various types of snakes and reptiles as well as monkeys and a lion.

“Many tourists love to come here to see the zoo and the snakes,” Tolba said.

However, after the 2011 revolution that scared many tourists away, Tolba said that they have barely seen tourists in their place over the past 10 years.

According to data released by the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), tourism revenues dropped by $2.7 billion in the fiscal year of 2019/2020, recording $9.9 billion. At its peak before the revolution, tourism revenues reached $12.5 billion from the 14.7 million tourists who visited Egypt and employed 12 percent of Egypt’s workforce in 2010.

The coronavirus has also hit the business of the Tolba family as they used to export snakes and reptiles abroad. Nasr added that reptiles are exported for various reasons whether for producing medicine or for experiments as well as for decorations.

According to official government data last year, total non-oil exports during the period from January to the end of April 2020 amounted to $1.7 billion, compared to $8.8 billion during the same period last year, a decrease of 1.8%.

“We used to have a good amount of exports before the coronavirus pandemic, but after the lockdowns and the flight suspensions in many countries across the world our exports slowed significantly,” Tolba’s son Nasr said.

At his zoo, Tolba takes all the safety precautions needed to protect his family as well as the animals. These include regularly conducting medical check-ups, cleaning cages, doing maintenance and providing enough food for the animals.

Tolba said that the reptile export industry can support the national economy as for him it is a “national treasure”. He added that in Egypt a cobra costs 50 Egyptian pounds ($3.2) but the same reptile would fetch a price of $200 abroad.

Similarly, a crocodile that is sold in Egypt for about 100 Egyptian pounds could fetch $900 abroad.

“The government is putting restrictions on exporting these reptiles and putting much custom fees on them although if these restrictions were eased the country would make billions of dollars from their export,” he said.

Tolba said that he hopes to open a large zoo in Giza that can compete internationally as a tourist attraction by having rare species living in swimming pools and with football fields and a large entertainment park.