WWF-Canada Blog:

We Love Snakes – Part 3: Snake conservation

To celebrate Chinese New Year and the Year of the Snake, we are doing a 3 part blog series on why we love snakes.

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about how hunting for snakes as a kid kindled my love of nature and determined my choice of career. Well the fields and bush I used to play in are long gone, replaced by malls and condominiums. Now you need to drive to a woodland park or head out to the countryside to find garter snakes.

Green tree snake (Ahaetulla prasina); Palawan Islands, Philippines

Ahaetulla prasina Green tree snake Palawan, Philippines. © Vin J. Toledo / WWF-Canon

In 2001, I had the opportunity to visit wildlife markets in Guangzhou, China. This included touring what was then, and probably still is, the largest market in the world dedicated to selling live animals for food. It was an utterly horrific experience. On that day, in that one market, I counted more than 100,000 lives snakes for sale. When I asked, I was told that the turn-around time for snakes was about seven days. So that means 100,000 snakes sold for meat every week; or more than five million snakes a year. The conservation implications are severe, and so is the impact on human health and food production. All of the species of snakes that I saw in that market were rodent eaters. Imagine how many hundreds of millions of rats and mice can be consumed in a year by five million snakes.

A few years ago I was in a meeting with representatives of the Mexican government, one of whom happened to be a herpetologist. Mexico is one of the top importing countries for reptile skins. The herpetologist told me that snake skins are imported into Mexico not by weight or number, but by length—an average of 5 kilometres of skins at a time. Imagine how many snakes it takes to make 5 kilometres of skin!

Sidewinder adder, Namib desert, Namibia

The sidewinder adder (Bitis peringueyi) is a venomous viper species. It leaves an s-shaped track in the sand and is carefully camouflaged. It buries itself in the sand, lying in wait for any passing beetle or lizard. Sossusvlei in the Namib desert. Namib-Naukluft National Park, Namibia. © Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

These stories illustrate three serious threats to the conservation of snakes on our planet: habitat loss, and unsustainable hunting for their meat and skin.

None of this information is new. The importance of snakes to their respective ecosystems and their benefit to human health and agriculture are well documented. Likewise, the over-hunting of snakes has been known about for many years. The challenge has been getting people to care. The fear of snakes is one of the most common phobias in our culture, and hatred of snakes is widespread worldwide.  In much of the world it is common practice to kill any snake on sight, whether it is a venomous species or not. Getting people to care about snake conservation isn’t easy.

The good news is that governments are starting to show concern about the hunting and trade of snakes. Next month the 177 member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will be meeting in Bangkok, Thailand to agree on measures to ensure that international wildlife trade is legal and sustainable. Amongst the proposals and documents that will be debated is one that specifically seeks to address the trade and management of snakes. You can read the document here: http://www.cites.org/eng/cop/16/doc/E-CoP16-57.pdf.

Of course international agreements and national laws to conserve snakes aren’t enough by themselves. There is an old saying that “laws without enforcement are just advice”. And one of the biggest challenges to enforcing wildlife trade laws is the identification of species in trade. Simply put, if enforcement officers can’t identify the wildlife products they see in trade, then they can’t enforce the laws that ensure conservation. This is why it is so important to develop and distribute materials that assist enforcement authorities to identify wildlife products.

Last year we produced our Guide to the Identification of Precious and Semi-precious corals. This year—the Year of the Snake—we are starting work on a guide to the identification of snakeskin. Once complete, our snakeskin guide will be distributed to the 177 member countries of CITES as a key tool for addressing one of the most important threats to snake conservation: unsustainable and illegal snakeskin trade. Now if we could just figure out a way to get people to love snakes as much as us…

Here’s hoping that the Year of the Snake is a good year for snake conservation. Gung Hay Fat Choy!