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Tuesday January 29, 2013

Higher demand for snakes now, more than ever before

In demand: Snakes with unique colours and skin patterns, such as those of the corn snake, are popular among pet
owners. But this hobby is said to be driving an illegal trade in wild-caught snakes. In demand: Snakes with unique colours and skin patterns, such as those of the corn snake, are popular among pet owners. But this hobby is said to be driving an illegal trade in wild-caught snakes.

As Chinese New Year dawns, consumers are caught up in a frenzy of owning all things snake — with dire consequences.

WITH the Year of the Snake drawing near, some animal lovers are seeking out snakes as pets, just like how rabbits were popular in 2011, the Year of the Rabbit. Even without being churned through the Chinese New Year branding machinery however, snakes are already in demand for their meat, in traditional medicine, and in high-end fashion.

In January, over 47,350 pieces of cobra bile and 1,680 cobra eggs were seized at Jakarta’s Soekarno-Hatta International Airport. In November, a report estimated that half a million python skins are exported from South-East Asia annually, in a trade worth US$1bil (RM3bil).

“There is a higher demand for snakes right now, probably more than there has ever been,” says Chris Shepherd, deputy director of wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic South-East Asia. “The global reptile trade right now, for pets, is huge, and the trade in skins is really huge.”

According to an article published in the journal Conservation Biology last October, the wild harvesting of amphibians and reptiles is driven chiefly by consumer demand, largely from developed nations but increasingly, from Asian countries.

At the losing end of the bargain are South-East Asian countries, the source of these wildlife. We’ve already encountered the “Asian Turtle Crisis” which saw drastic declines in tortoises and freshwater turtles in the region. Now, it looks like the trade in Asian snakes is fast gearing up to become another crisis.

Scientists admit that few studies have attempted, or been able to determine, the scale of the illegal trade in snakes, and the effects of illegal harvest. What we do know is that there are hundreds of species of reptiles and amphibians harvested from the wild every year for trade.

From the few studies that have been done, it looks like there is good reason for consumers to be cautious. The green tree python (Morelia viridis) is a popular snake in the global pet trade. It is one of Indonesia’s top exports, and stocks are declared as captive breds. In 2011, however, scientists Jessica Lyons and Daniel Natusch from the University of New South Wales found that at least 80% of Indonesia’s green tree python exports were poached from the wild.

This find highlights two important points: the potential for widespread fraud in the reptile export market and the difficulties pet owners face in differentiating between wild-caught and captive-bred stock.

There are many responsible snake owners who genuinely care for their pets and think that their hobby is harmless to populations in the wild. After all, snakes like the green tree python are not classified as a “threatened” species. Unfortunately, simply looking at an animal’s global conservation status does not reflect the damaging impact that harvesting might have on local wild populations. For example, the green tree python is listed as of “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List but the assessment is based on global distributions. In Indonesia’s Papua province and Maluku Islands, the researchers say traders have reported a decline in snake numbers, which indicates over-harvesting on a local scale.

Last year, both scientists conducted another survey in the same area but discovered that efforts to find out the long-term impacts of the pet trade on local populations were hampered by poor understanding of the biology and trade of the snake species, and the fact that they inhabit remote provinces.

The
California
kingsnake, a
species
endemic to
western
United
States and
northern
Mexico, has
slithered
into a pet
shop in Ipoh. The California kingsnake, a species endemic to western United States and northern Mexico, has slithered into a pet shop in Ipoh.

They found a great need for increased monitoring and enforcement to curb illegal trading activities. Aside from improving our knowledge of the species being traded, there is also a need to educate consumers. Pet owners need to be aware of the effects their demand for exotic wildlife can have on species and their habitats, as well as the illegal means used to supply animals for the trade, such as wild-caught animals being passed off as captive breds.

According to the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan), nine species of snakes are traded locally – the reticulated python, Burmese python, blood python, Borneo short-tailed python, ball python (or royal python), Oriental rat snake, king cobra, monocled cobra and equatorial spitting cobra.

Perhilitan said 406 live snakes, 297,956 pieces of skin, 12,508 kg of meat, and 82 snake-based products were exported from Malaysia in 2011. Eight Malaysian snake species listed were in CITES Appendix II and so, subjected to controlled trade.

The local trade in snakes will soon be affected by an amendment to the Pet Shop Regulations 2012 under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010. Perhilitan says not all local species will be allowed for trade under the regulation, citing this as a way to control the possession of harmful and dangerous snakes.

Currently, the Act lists 169 species as “protected” (permit is required for any trade) and 14 as “totally protected” (no trade allowed).

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