Slippery Trail – Snake Trade On The Rise!
February 2010: On December 28, 2009, police intercepted two cars at the Maharashtra-Andhra Pradesh border and apprehended six smugglers carrying two sand boas. One of the two snakes had been purchased by a middleman from a villager in Nizamabad for Rs. 20,000 and sold to the accused smugglers for two lakhs. They in turn had been offered Rs. 12 lakhs for the snake that weighed about 4.5 kg. by a buyer in Nanded, Maharashtra.
In recent times, the trade in sand boas has escalated not just in south India but also shifted focus to Maharashtra and Gujarat – smugglers from Mumbai and Dahanu have been caught purchasing the snakes in Silvassa. There is widespread misconception about their medicinal and aphrodisiacal properties as well as the belief that keeping this non-poisonous snake as a pet brings wealth and prosperity. The burgeoning trade is believed to also supply markets in Southeast Asia. Rampant trafficking is also fuelled by the fact that there is a high demand for the snake in western countries for cancer research.
Heavy and stout, sand boas grow up to 0.9 m. The mouth is located under the projecting snout enabling them to burrow under the sand. Naturally sluggish, these snakes hardly ever bite. In India, there are three species of sand boas with the Russell’s sand boa Eryx conicus and John’s sand boa Eryx johnii being common and a recently described species, the Whitaker’s sand boa Eryx whitaker. The John’s sand boa has a blunt tail that is similar in shape to its head making it appear two-headed. Snake charmers often make a laceration on its tail. On healing, this looks like the mouth – yet another form of the blatant exploitation these docile creatures face at the hands of humans. When threatened, the snake hides its head within its coiled body and uses the tail to mimic the head. The snakes are found both in forests and farmlands.
There have also been reports that women and men enter forests in the Chitoor district in Andhra Pradesh to search for sand boas. They dig in places with loose and wet soil and even engage snake charmers to help them locate the snakes. In the last few months there has been a sudden spurt in smuggling of the snakes due to the huge prices being quoted for the species. The lure of money is encouraging villagers to smuggle and trade in sand boas, despite the fact that such an offence is punishable under the Wildlife Protection Act.
It is unfortunate that people fail to realise the services provided by these snakes. The disappearance of sand boas will certainly increase the rat population as these snakes feed largely on them.
In India, a country where snakes are revered, it is also ironical that thousands of snakes are killed each year. Indian whip snakes are heavily exploited as are pythons which are the most popular for shoes and handbags and also belts, jackets and other accessories. The fashion industry often claims that the skins used come from farmed species in Southeast and South Asia but officials from TRAFFIC (see page 52) say that rearing pythons in captivity is too expensive and in most cases such farms are just covers for the snakes caught in the wild. The farms pay villagers a pittance per snake caught and sell them for huge amounts. In Indonesia alone, the industry employs about 175,000 people of which 150,000 are snake catchers – which proves that “farmed” snakes are a myth. The European Union is the biggest importer of snake skins with Italy, Germany and France being the largest consumers. The United States which has signed the CITES treaty, imports finished products made from reptile skins worth about $257 million a year and in India, where their import and export is strictly not prohibited, the trade is rampant illegally.
Write to the Chief Ministers of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Maharastra and Gujarat and to Jairam Ramesh, the Minister for Environment and Forests (MoEF) asking them to:
1. Strengthen border controls to check cross-border and cross-state poaching of wildlife.
2. Impose harsher punishments on poachers and buyers of snake skin thereby tackling the problem at the source.
3. Conduct awareness programmes on the importance of snakes in local ecosystems and offer incentives to villagers to protect instead of destroying them.
4. Work with global anti-poaching networks to tackle the international illegal wildlife trade.
Shri Jairam Ramesh, Minister of State for Environment and Forests
Paryavaran Bhavan, CGO Complex, Lodi Road, New Delhi – 110 003.
Paryavaran Bhavan, CGO Complex, Lodhi Road, New Delhi – 110 003.
And you can also get the Chief Ministers’ addresses of all the Indian states from this link.