IN 23 hours, a man is dead after being bitten twice by a puff adder – a highly venomous snake from Africa, with the ability to kill a person with 100mg of its toxin.
The snake bit the victim while he was handling the animal, before it slithered away.
The victim in his 30s was said to be helping his friend, who is an exotic pet keeper, during the incident on May 5.
There was no readily available antivenom in Malaysia, as the snake, or its scientific name, Bitis arietans, is not native to our country.
The man, from Selangor, died while efforts to get the antivenom from the Singapore Zoo were ongoing, read reports.
Such a tragedy raised questions on regulations about keeping such venomous pets, especially foreign species, with several quarters urging for owners to be more accountable.
To clear the air: the public can buy and keep wildlife that is being sold at pet shops that are licensed by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan).
Only selected species are allowed to be sold by such shops and pet owners would have to get a license to keep such animals.
“However, venomous wildlife protected under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 (Act 716) cannot be kept as pets.
“This is regardless of their origin,” Perhilitan director-general Datuk Abdul Kadir Abu Hashim tells Sunday Star.
But in the case of the puff adder, which is said to be brought into Malaysia from Africa, this species is not endangered – it isn’t listed as a protected animal under the Act 716 or in the International Trade in Endangered Species Act.
“Therefore, regulations related to this species are beyond Perhilitan’s jurisdiction and the puff adder’s owner cannot be charged,” Abdul Kadir explains the legal grey area.
Nevertheless, it was reported that Perhilitan is investigating the possibility that the snake was smuggled into Malaysia.
Over the past three years, the top types of wildlife involved in smuggling cases are song birds, parrots and turtles, Abdul Kadir notes.
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On a suggestion that special permits be given to those who want to own non-native snakes in Malaysia, he says this is not suitable, as such permits are meant for totally protected wildlife which are usually endangered.
“Not all non-native snakes are endangered. Therefore this suggestion is not suitable to be implemented,” he adds.
Ultimately, Abdul Kadir urges individuals to be knowledgeable and skillful about taking care of dangerous animals before keeping them as pets.
“Perhilitan does not provide training to the general public on how to care for dangerous animals as pets.
“It is not advisable to keep venomous pets at home as there are many risks associated with such animals.
“I urge the public to choose domestic animals as pets because they’re easier to keep and safer to handle than wildlife,” he stresses.
‘Bring your own antivenom’
The recent tragic case shows the danger of keeping venomous animals without proper documentation with the authorities, says Associate Professor Dr Ahmad Khaldun Ismail, from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.
“The puff adder in Malaysia is as deadly as they are in Africa.
“Without the appropriate clinical management and antivenom, the outcome is poor,” says Dr Ahmad Khaldun, who is a consultant emergency physician.
In the case on May 5, the victim was brought to the emergency department of a hospital in the Klang Valley, and doctors had consulted the Remote Envenomation Consultancy Services (RECS) for advice.
RECS is a risk management support system, which assists healthcare professionals for bites and stings from venomous animals and poisoning from naturally occurring toxins.
Dr Ahmad Khaldun, who is an advisor of RECS Asean, says the incident serves as a reminder of the need for anyone keeping such venomous animals to have their own supply of adequate antivenom.
“It is inappropriate to expect any medical facility in the country to stock exotic animal antivenoms or to obtain it from zoos.
“It is the responsibility of the one bringing in the exotic venomous species to also bring in sufficient antivenom for the exotic species,” he stresses.
Aside from the recent case, Dr Ahmad Khaldun says RECS has experienced several exotic animal bites and stings over the past 10 years.
“Previous cases were from rattlesnakes, a Philippine pit viper and a Death stalker scorpion.
“All of the victims survived, but they required hospitalisation.
“The mechanism of injury was from free handling or feeding with bare hands,” he adds.
He says Malaysia does not produce its own antivenom, but imports them from manufacturers in Thailand and Australia.
“We have stocked antivenoms appropriate for local venomous snake species such as cobras, King cobra, kraits, pit vipers and sea snakes.
“We also have antivenom for box jellyfish in Sabah,” he says.
But at the end of the day, Dr Ahmad Khaldun says it all boils down to pet owners being responsible and accountable.
More regulations needed
The deadly bite from the puff adder here has also opened up questions on the need for more regulations to prevent another incident.
Traffic communications manager Elizabeth John says the puff adder is not listed on CITES, or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
“It is also not listed in Act 716 although the Act does list other venomous species such the rattlesnake and mamba under its schedule of ‘controlled species’.
“It is not clear what other law may have been violated when the puff adder was brought into the country. Could it have been bred in the country?” she questions.
Traffic is a non-governmental organisation working globally on trade in wild animals and plants in the context of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development.
Elizabeth also raises the question on the level of scrutiny at border entry checkpoints, such as with quarantine checks and documentation.
Another issue is whether current laws are broad enough to cater to such cases concerning non-native exotic and venomous, or potentially dangerous, wildlife.
“It’s also a big question if there is any proper regulation of wild, exotic, and venomous animals kept as pets in businesses and homes by local councils which issue licenses for pets such as dogs,” she says.
Pointing out the need for more clarity, Malaysian Nature Society herpetofauna special interest group (Selangor) coordinator Steven Wong believes more regulations should be in place for keeping venomous snakes.
Common pet snakes that are native to Malaysia are like the Sumatran spitting cobra, king cobra and Malayan pit viper, he says.
“Perhilitan has clear provisions for how you can keep these snakes, including the need for a hunter’s permit.
“However, the paperwork for snakes from other countries is not well scripted. Some snake keepers say it is not restricted. But I think if you are going to keep a venomous snake, you have to show the government that you are capable of keeping a snake that is dangerous,” he says.
“People who wish to keep venomous snakes should show they are competent enough to handle such reptiles,” Wong suggests, adding that such owners must also have plans in case of untoward incidents.