Far away from Egypt's Giza province, there's a private zoo full of wild animals that now attracts zoologists, pharmaceutical companies and animal lovers from abroad.
GIZA, Egypt — “I grew up in a family that worked in hunting, selling animals and reptiles. Snakes lived under our beds inside my grandfather’s house. This is how I became acquainted with them and eventually let go of my fear,” says Salah Tolba, 51, explaining the beginning of his reptile hunting career.
A 51-year-old man with a heavy mustache dressed in a countryside robe, Tolba was cleaning the lions’ cage as he began telling his story. The father of nine owns a garden located in Abou Rawash, in the outskirts of Giza. He calls it “Africano Tolba” and opens it to the public to visit his predators.
Tolba is a man of extraordinary talent. He inherited his family legacy of reptile hunting, which dates back 300 years and turned it into a full-time business. At first sight, his park, a sanctuary for different kinds of animals, appears to be a miniature model of the Giza public zoo. Though he opened it six years ago, the General Authority for Veterinary Service sat the Ministry of Agriculture issued a license for it only two years ago.
It's quite possible that most of the locals aren't aware of the park, but it's quite popular among foreigners, scientists and university professors. Different breeds of chimpanzees, monkeys and snakes are housed in there, besides the Egyptian wolf, wild cats, crocodiles, snakes and giant anacondas. Sometimes a puma can be sighted walking in the park, too.
Students and professors of science and veterinary colleges are regular customers, who often visit the zoo to purchase mice, frogs and all types of snakes and insects for laboratory experiments.
A photo of Tolba posing with a lioness hangs at the park entrance. The lioness, he says, was named as the beauty queen in a 2012 contest, and later exported to the Netherlands in one of the first trades of its kind in Egypt.
Tolba speaks to his animals like a father would speak to his children. They communicate in silence, at times with subtle sounds and movements. He would shake hands with a monkey or pat lions with a remarkable compassion. He carries snakes like a girl carrying her dolls.
"What I have been working on for years with my sons and grandsons is to develop the profession. Instead of just letting the reptiles inside the house, we designed glass panels to give them the right environment for living and mating,” he says.
Though his larger goal is to preserve the species that are on the brink of extinction, he also makes profit out of this trade by extracting snake venom and selling it off to pharmaceutical companies and research centres.
Led by his sons and trained employees, their hunting expedition starts in April and ends in late October. At times visitors from abroad also join them. They camp in the mountains, deserts and agricultural lands. Their activities extend from the northeastern governorate of Sinai to Toshka and Shalateen in the south in order to obtain rare species that come out after winter hibernation.
Tolba says there are about 36 species of snakes in Egypt. Seven among them are highly poisonous, and the rest are non-toxic species.
At the time of hunting, Tolba needs a jeep for the high desert ride, a bag of clothes and a little axe. He looks for pores and holes in the desert sand, a sign that often leads the hunter to snake pits. Tolba is quick to notice their gender, a skill that comes with experience, and he can tell whether the reptiles are poisonous by examining their features and movements.
Hunting trips could last for as little as 24 hours or as long as 10 days. “It is God’s choice,” Tolba says.
The business picked up as Tolba sold snake venom to the vaccination authority. The authority stored the snake extracts in different types of boxes for long periods before sending them off to pharmaceutical labs. Tolba gradually learned the art of preserving snake venom, and he independently began to sell it to various medical companies.
Asking Tolba about his strongest hunting memories, his 30-year-old son Sameh interrupted to tell the story of the most dangerous moment his older brother Osama faced when he was out in the field in Beheira, a coastal region in the north of Egypt.
The wind was strong and Osama had found traces of a non-poisonous snake. He unwarily jutted his hand out to catch it but was severely bitten. The reptile turned out to be the Cerastes vipera, a venomous type. The snake had taken shelter ahead of the storm, and the wind had erased its traces.
Tolba had to remove the skin off his son’s finger to prevent poisoned blood from spreading in his body. He survived after receiving treatment at a hospital but still cannot move his finger.
“We have earned a good reputation in the field of extracting toxins from snakes," Tolba says.
The family exports them abroad to countries like the United States, France, Germany, Italy and Britain.
Tolba says there is a growing demand for Egyptian frogs in the European market, especially in France, where the reptile is served in fancy restaurants as a fine delicacy.
Eventually the business grew, expanding into research centres in several western countries and making inroads in China. The family forged an international brand name Africano Tulba.
But sometimes the business can run into trouble with the government. Tolba says three years ago the vaccine authority in Egypt prevented them from exporting certain types of toxins to France, citing no reasons.
Exuding the confidence of a successful entrepreneur, he says he once asked the Egyptian government to outsource the famous Giza Zoo to him. He asked for an annual fee of $558,800 (EGP 10 million) for general maintenance, including food and health services for animals.
"I never got a response,” Tolba says.
Tolba says reptile business can yield large profits once the extracts and certain types of species are sold abroad.
At least 10,000 people, according to Tolba, can be employed in his field, where they will have to deal with snakes, lizards, crocodiles, the Egyptian wolf and insects like the beetle and the mantis.
Tolba says a cobra that costs $2.70 (EGP 50) could be sold abroad for at least $200. An owl sold in Egypt for $1.08 (EGP 20) is exported at $500. A crocodile which costs $5.40 (EGP 100) is sold abroad for $900. Also, the Egyptian fox sold locally at $1.08 (EGP 20) would fetch $700 abroad.
Though the Egyptian government has banned the export of lizards, calling them a national treasure, Tolba says one lizard costs $100 abroad.
Tolba says he ensures that the animals he sells are in "good hands."
"It took me two years to design and build a cage for one of my lions so that he could live comfortably in it," he says.
Nabil Mabrouk, a 41-year-old snake hunter, explained that his family has been working with the Tolba family for several years. Mabrouk says he's always keen on mating his animals with the ones in Tolba's zoo."The animals in public zoos aren't in good shape so I prefer mating my animals with the ones in Tolba's zoo," he says.
Another hunter says the families engaged in reptile and animal hunting face 'arbitrary' measures by the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture and the Giza Zoo administration, despite implementing all safety procedures before placing them in Tolba’s park such as regular medical checkups and maintenance of cages, in addition to cleaning and providing food services.
Tolba and his family live inside the park and among the animals they breed, a sight that reflects the family's commitment toward the business.
And Tolba's dream is to set up a large zoo in the 6th of October city, a satellite town in Giza, where he wants to host a variety of animals, including rare and endangered species shipped from other countries. He envisions a large entertainment park, football fields and swimming pools — all encompassed in his dream zoo.
“I instructed my children to carry on the dream should I die before it is completed,” he says.