Katie of the Sonoran Desert: A model for viper conservation education in Africa?



Authored by Bryan Maritz
Regional Coordinator (Sub-Saharan Africa) of the IUCN Viper Specialist Group
Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology; University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa. E-mail: bryanmaritz@gmail.com.

Several years ago herpetologist Kate Jackson and illustrator Natalie Rowe teamed up to produce a remarkable book, Katie of the Sonoran Desert (Jackson & Rowe, 2009). The book tells the story of a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox) that is marked during a radio-telemetry study and follows her life through encounters with predators, interactions with humans, and mating and defending of neonates. The book additionally provides accurate, interesting and easy-to-understand information about rattlesnakes and about the plants and animals with which Katie interacts, as well as a description of the science of herpetology. Moreover, the book is presented simultaneously in English and Spanish, making it accessible to children (and adults) from across the distribution of C. atrox and most of the New World. Many herpetologists have the pleasure of following individual radio-telemetered study animals and develop affinities to individuals and their activities–Jackson’s Katie, Greene’s Superfemale 21 (Greene, 2013) TEL005 from my own work on Bitis schneideri. This affinity lies at the core of Katie of the Sonoran Desert and is, in my opinion, what brings the book to life. Moreover, it is this personal connection, combined with diverse and accurate content, that makes Katie of the Sonoran Desert a model for viper education and conservation.

In recent years I have had the opportunity, along with Graham Alexander of the University of the Witwatersrand, to conduct field studies on Puff Adders (Bitis arietans). Puff Adders are widespread and abundant African vipers that are unfortunately responsible for a number of medically-important envenomations each year. Our field studies, combined with the ongoing work of Xavier Glaudas, Tony Phelps and others, have provided fantastic insights to the daily lives of Puff Adders. Our understanding of Puff Adder biology has grown sufficiently to now provide the scientific basis for the kind of story told by Jackson in Katie of the Sonoran Desert. As such, and given that the vast majority of Africa’s 1.1 billion human inhabitants occur within the distribution of B. arietans, I propose the production of a Katie-esque book for Africa with a Puff Adder in the leading role.

Africa provides some obvious challenges. Primary among these is the low level of literacy among many African communities. Moreover, Africa contains a remarkable number of languages providing a significant challenge to the production of a multilingual book. While English and French are appropriate for most of Africa, smaller languages are diverse: South Africa alone hosts 11 official languages! Nonetheless, if presented at an appropriate level, the book could provide a useful teaching tool for children and adults alike in terms of both conservation and literacy.


Harry Greene initially suggested the use of Katie of the Sonoran Desert as a model for viper conservation.

Jackson, K. & Rowe, N. (2009) Katie of the Sonoran Desert. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press.
Greene, H. W. (2013). Tracks and Shadows: Field Biology as Art. University of California Press.