Kenyan Sandboas, Information and Care

Dave and Tracy Barker


Scientific name:  Eryx colubrinus loveridgei

Other common names: This is the sandboa species most often encountered in captivity in U.S. collections. It is most often referred to as the Kenyan sandboa. In fact, "Kenyan sandboa" has been the most commonly used name to refer to this taxon for the past two decades. The use of this name dates back to the mid-1970s when the first specimens were imported to this country, Kenya having been their country of origin. In fact the taxon occurs in several East African nations and the name "East African sandboa" also refers to this taxon and has been used at least as long as has "Kenyan sandboa." Considering that most U.S. captive specimens are descended from Tanzanian stock, the common name of "East African sandboa" is probably the more appropriate name. Nevertheless, "Kenyan sandboa" is the more commonly used name by American keepers.

Size:  This is a heavy-bodied short snake. The head is not distinct from the neck, the eyes are small, the rostral scale overhangs the lower jaw. The scales on the dorsal surface are keeled and on the ventral surface are smooth. The tail is very short and tapers quickly to a dull point. The scales on the upper surface of the tail are very heavily keeled, almost sharp to the touch. Large specimens attain considerable bulk and girth. Large females approach and may slightly exceed two pounds in weight.

            Adult female specimens in most U.S. collections average about 26"-32" in total length. Males are considerably smaller than females. The maximum size of this form approaches 40". We have seen several large females currently maintained in U.S. collections measuring 32"-36"--absolutely grand specimens.

Distribution: This taxon of sandboa occurs from central Ethiopia south to the Dodoma Province of Tanzania, and from southwestern Somalia west across Kenya to the Uganda border.

Availability:  In the 1970s a very few specimens were imported from Kenya. The species was, at the time, seldom-seen in captivity and considered a rare captive. The first reported captive breeding of this taxon was accomplished in 1979 at the Houston Zoo by John McLain. In the late 1980s until 1995, numerous specimens were exported from northern Tanzania to the U.S. In 1995 Tanzania stopped the export of sandboas and, so far as we know, since that time wild-caught specimens have not been available.

            Sandboas have their own following of dedicated keepers and breeders who work with nothing else. East African sandboas readily breed in captivity and U.S. captive-bred animals are readily available. We would estimate that more than several thousand Eryx c. loveridgei are now captive-bred and born in the U.S. each year. Excellent captive-bred specimens are available from professional breeders and serious hobbyists.. The species is offered for sale on many price lists, web sites, and classified advertising. Captive-bred animals are often encountered at weekend reptile shows.

Color and pattern: The belly and lower sides of an East African sandboa are opalescent white; the upper surface has an orange background color, and dorsally the snakes are patterned with dark brown blotches.

East African sandboas apparently do have some geographic variation of color and pattern. In our experience, the pattern of  the specimens from Kenya (their exact provenance is unknown) consists of large dark brown blotches on the side that may coalesce to form predominantly brown sides that encroach onto the back to border an irregular zigzag of orange down the center of the back. The pattern of specimens we have seen from more southern Tanzania populations consists of well-separated, rounded blotches of irregular sizes interspersed on the orange lateral and dorsal surfaces. Some East African sandboas are colored with spectacular fiery red-orange, others may be a pure orange or a yellow-orange. Some specimens, particularly older females, may have a dusting of brown in their orange dorsal pattern.

We have identified the East African sandboas from Dodoma province in central Tanzania as "flame race" sandboas. They comprise the southernmost known population of this taxon, isolated several hundred miles from other known Tanzania populations. They are very attractive large sandboas, with reduced dark marking. Some specimens have particularly bright fiery orange coloration.

There is one reported unusual naturally occurring condition of pattern. Found in southwestern Somalia is a population of patternless, reddish sandboas. These were once classified as Eryx rufescens, but they are now believed to be a variant of Eryx colubrinus loveridgei. Unfortunately there are no living specimens in captivity of which we are aware. There is a mutation of pattern seen in loveridgei that creates the dark patternless appearance of rufescens. These snakes are commonly identified and have been sold as Eryx rufescens, but so far as we are able to discover, these are actually morphs of loveridgei descended from Tanzanian stock and not actual rufescens from Somalia.

            Of particular interest to the fanciers of east African sandboas are two attractive color mutations. The first mutation serendipitously showed up in several West Coast collections that were breeding this subspecies when unexpected axanthic [pronounced "? zanthic"] babies were born to normal adults. Axanthic snakes are missing yellow, red, and brown pigments. Axanthic baby Kenyan sand boas are black with bluish-white pale markings, they grow to become black and white adults with black button eyes. This mutation has been demonstrated to be an inheritable trait, apparently a simple recessive mutation. Several breeders now annually offer these very attractive snakes. 

            In early 1995 a female paradox-albino East African sandboa was imported into the United States from Tanzania, and purchased by VPI. This animal was a subadult when imported, probably in her second year. So far as we know, this is the first record of albinism in this taxon, and it also is the first paradox-albino appearance proven to be inheritable.

East African sandboas are the most popular of the sand boas in U.S. collections and they are high on our list of all-time favorite snakes. There are several reasons for the national popularity of this sandboa. One important reason is that, while many sand boa species are rightly considered to be "snappy," East African sandboas are typically very docile and deliberate snakes. Once accustomed to their keepers, most East African sandboas can be expected to not bite. When sand boas do bite in defense or annoyance, they rarely (if ever) strike and bite; rather they snap to the side, biting at anything touching their body. We have never experienced or heard of any sort of damaging bite from any sand boa, but their bites can be sudden, surprising, and briefly painful.

            Another character of East African sandboas that adds to their popularity among keepers is the fact that newborn specimens typically begin feeding on pink mice. The newborns of several other species, such as the javelin sand boa, Eryx jaculus, the dwarf sand boa, Eryx miliaris, or the Arabian sand boa, Eryx jayakari, are smaller and often prefer or require small lizards for their first meals.

            As a group, sand boas certainly cannot be considered to be the peacocks of the Boidae.  Generally speaking, this is a pretty plain bunch of snakes, with most species simply patterned in brown earth tones. The plainest of the lot is the brown sand boa, Eryx johnii (these are beautiful orange babies, but as adults they are unpatterned brown snakes, top and bottom, the plainest of snakes.) East African sandboas stand out from most of the sandboa crowd with their beautiful colors, certainly an important contributing reason for their popularity. 

Maintenance requirements:

-Cage size:  East African sandboas require a secure well-ventilated cage. A glass aquarium with a secure ventilated top (screen wire or perforated metal) can be a satisfactory cage to display these beautiful snakes. Plastic storage boxes, with numerous perforations for ventilation, can be satisfactorily used to maintain sandboas for all of their life. For many years we kept males in Rubbermaid 16-quart storage boxes with floors measuring 9" x 14", and females in Rubbermaid 32-quart boxes measuring 12" x 18". Today we keep both sexes in boxes with floors measuring 11" x 18".

            We maintain young sandboas in enclosures with about 40 square inches of floor space; those cages remain adequate until the snakes are about two years old.

            The biggest females will benefit from cages with 1½-2½  square feet of floor space. Males can live in cages with one square foot of floor space all their lives.

-Substrate:  Over the years we have maintained this species on newspaper, aspen bedding, commercially available brown aquarium gravel, sand, and potting soil. All of these substrates worked adequately, but it has been our experience and observation that this species does extremely well on aspen bedding, or potting soil. Both of these substrates are easy to maintain at a satisfactory level of sanitation. Our third preference would be newspaper.

            These sandboas can be successfully maintained in sand or gravel. However, in nature East African sandboas are associated with loamy soils and are burrow inhabitants. They are not loose sand or sand dune dwellers, as are some of the other species of sandboas. It is our observation that, given the choice, East African sand boas prefer aspen bedding or potting soil to loose substrates, probably because of a slightly higher level of humidity in those substrates and  because they construct and then use semi-permanent burrows in those substrates.

            When using aspen bedding or potting soil as substrate for adult sandboas, we have had the best results when the substrate is kept  3"-5" deep in the cage. The animals then create their burrows which we occasionally disturb during cleaning. However, we purposely do not meticulously clean these cages. We check the cages daily, paying particular attention to the ambiance and odor of the cage. If it smells fresh and clean, then we don't disturb it. If the odor of some large stool or uneaten meal is detected, then the source of the offending odor is removed. Every second or third month, all the bedding is replaced. It is a very efficient way to maintain the sandboas, who themselves are efficient and clean snakes and allow such a lenient maintenance regime.

            Of the two substrates, we recommend aspen bedding over potting soil. When we have used potting soil, we added some sand, vermiculite, and peat moss to the potting soil so that it would better pack and allow the snakes to create their burrows. We originally add a small amount of water to make the mixture very slightly damp, but thereafter the activities of the snakes seem to keep the requisite amount of humidity so that the soil will remain workable.

-Water:  East African sandboas better tolerate extended periods of drought than most snake species that are kept in captivity; we've known them to go for more than a month without water without apparent ill effects. However, for a successful maintenance regime, clean water should be available in a glass or ceramic water bowl at all times. Young snakes are supplied with an 8 oz water bowl measuring about 2½" in diameter, 1" in depth. Older snakes have a 16 oz water bowl measuring about 4" in diameter and 2½" in depth.         

            We have never observed these sandboas to sit in their water bowls under any circumstances. It's likely that, typical of most other snakes, sand boas might sit in their water bowls if they are stressed or insecure in their cages (they are "hiding" in their water bowl,) or if they are plagued by an infestation of snake mites. We note that mites apparently do not like this snake, and while sandboas surely must occasionally get mites, we've never seen an East African sandboa with mites.

-Temperatures:  This is a very hardy snake with regard to temperature and they appear to be able to withstand relative temperature extremes of 60-100 degrees F for extended periods without apparent ill effects.

            However, as a general starting point for successful maintenance, East African sandboas seem to do best if kept in the low-to-mid-80s degrees F. This species does like to bask at high temperatures, and many keepers provide them with heated basking areas that are 90-to-95 degrees F. We have not found these basking areas to be a mandatory requirement for the successful maintenance of the species, with the exception of gravid females who are required to maintain higher temperature for the best development of their young.

            It's a good maintenance practice to provide a range of temperatures in sandboa cages; in other words, one end of the cage is 5-8 degrees F warmer than the other end, with the cooler end of the cage averaging 77-79 degrees F. This will allow the individual to choose an ambient temperature that best suits at any given time.

            In addition to these temperature, a warmer basking spot may be provided. Sandboas like to bask under warm lights or ceramic bulbs. Likewise, they will sit on a warm area of substrate, heated from below with some type of heating pad.

            Electrically-heated fake rocks can be very dangerous to sandboas, as occasionally the surface temperature of some of these hot rocks may exceed 130-140 degrees F and they can cause severe burns on the bellies of unsuspecting sandboas. A heated rock should feel warm or even very warm to the hand of a keeper, but if the rock is a safe temperature, then it can be tightly held in the hand for several minutes without becoming uncomfortably hot to the hand.

            As is true for many snakes, sandboas can better tolerate temperature extremes if they do not have food in their digestive system. If recently fed,  they should not be subjected to temperatures more than 95 degrees F or below 74 degrees F. When empty of food, East African sandboas are tolerant of a wider range of temperatures.

­­---Feeding requirements:  In captivity, East African sandboas can eat mice their whole lives; most adults readily accept freshly-killed or thawed mice, offered to them with feeding forceps. That is typically how we feed most of our sandboas. Actually, many specimens will eat dead mice left in their cages, Large females readily feed on small adult rats. One appropriately-sized rodent per week is an adequate feeding schedule. Adults typically do not feed during the winter months.

            We have noted that, when kept on aspen or potting soil, an East African sandboa creates an "ambush spot" at the entrance to one of his tunnels. This is an excavated area, a hole or dip in the substrate, into which opens a tunnel on the side. When hungry and "hunting," a sandboa sits in the tunnel facing the ambush spot, his face just back in the tunnel at the edge of the spot he has created, sort of the ophidian equivalent of an ant lion and his pit. Any rodent disturbing the pit will be immediately grabbed by the waiting snake. For that matter, any finger poking around in the pit may be grabbed, too. It's an easy matter to feed sandboas their meals by holding dead prey with forceps and dancing it around the "ambush spot." If the snake is not there, it's a good place to lay dead prey to see if the snake will pick it up.

            An "appropriate-sized" meal is one that makes just a slight lump inside the snake. Snakes that are distended from too-large meals should not be handled, nor should they be subjected to temperature extremes. This subspecies seems to have very minimal food requirements, one of our healthy adult males may by choice eat only five or six times a year in some years; we've known adults to go half a year without eating and show no apparent weight loss.

            For their first meals, most newborns begin feeding on live small pink mice that are simply left in the cages. Once they have begun to feed, most sandboas subsequently readily accept dead mice as food, either thawed or fresh-killed.

            REMEMBER!   A hungry live mouse may attack and damage or even kill a boa if left unsupervised. Don't leave live rodents unsupervised in the cage of any boas. ALWAYS put food for the rodent in the cage.

---Shedding:  East African sandboas only rarely have problems shedding their skin. When a snake incompletely sheds, and a portion of the skin is left adhered to the snake, the snake should be soaked in shallow water or slightly-soapy water for several hours, after which the skin typically comes off very easily. The water should be no deeper than half the height of the body of the snake. Do not make the snake swim.

            Small patches of skin that remain adhered to the snake typically do not have any deleterious effect and it is at the option of the keeper to arrange for the removal. However, it is important that the portions of the shed skin covering the rostral scale on the end of the snout and also the skin on the tip of the tail be removed. It's probably best to see that skin is not left on the face and eyes. Typically, "stuck" pieces of shed will come off with the next shed. Incomplete sheds and adhered sheds are an indicator that the ambient humidity in the cage is too low and the careful keeper will "tweak" the system to increase the humidity.

---Special considerations for hatchlings and juveniles:  We keep newborns and youngsters in a different setup than older sandboas. While they like to burrow in any substrate, we found that if we created a setup that allowed them to them do so, we then had more difficulties getting them to feed.

            The first cage for baby sandboas are an acrylic shoe storage boxes (approximately 40 square inches of floor space) that have about 20 small ventilation holes melted in each end. In each box is a 6 oz plastic water cup, a sprinkling of aspen covering one half of the cage floor, and one folded paper towel placed on top of the aspen. In this setup, a youngster sits under the paper towel nestled in the aspen, but he is visible to us when we lift the paper towel without our having to excavate him. We are thus able to monitor him and present food to him without unduly alarming him.

            When it comes time to get them to feed, newborn sandboas generally present their keepers with few problems. Youngsters usually shed within a few days of being born. We typically wait 2-3 weeks before we feed them, allowing them to utilize the yolk in their bodies. During that time we handle them minimally. We then offer them live small pink mice for their first few meals, simply placing the prey in the cages and letting the babies follow their instincts. Most often we set the pinks on top of the folded paper towels, and close the boxes and place them back in their places as quietly as possible, knowing that the vibrations of the live pinks moving on the towels are intriguing to the youngsters underneath.  

            A small percentage of youngsters may not be feeding after several chances. One method that we have employed with some success is to enclose a recalcitrant feeder in an empty (ventilated) plastic butter tub with a tiny live pink mouse. The enforced close proximity to prey often seems to elicit a feeding response from the little snake.

            A baby sandboa with a stuck shed can be enclosed in a ventilated plastic butter tub with a piece of wet paper towel. We recommend this rather than soaking in water.

            Most adult East African sandboas are very docile and reluctant to bite. Babies are typically snappy, but they are small and the bites are harmless. But when calmly and consistently handled, the youngsters grow to very docile and trusting adults.

            ---General comments:  East African sandboas are among the best snakes to keep in captivity. They are both beautiful and interesting animals. They are extremely hardy animals in captivity. They can withstand relative temperature extremes of 60-100 degrees F for extended periods without apparent ill effects. They better tolerate extended periods of drought than most snake species that are kept in captivity; we've known them to go for more than a month without water without apparent ill effects. This subspecies seems to have very minimal food requirements, we have healthy adult males that may by choice eat only five or six times a year in some years; we've known adults of either sex to go half a year without eating and show no apparent weight loss. They tolerate lots of attention and handling, and they thrive during periods of neglect. In other words, it's our observation that East African sandboas are ideally suited to survive the mistakes and neglect that shouldn't ever happen, but occasionally do happen to all kinds of captive snakes.