Species for Sale: Snakes
by Thomas Gomersall
Several snake species are known to be traded in Hong Kong. These include ones native to Hong Kong and southern China like the Chinese cobra (Naja atra), banded krait (Bungarus fasciatus) and copperhead racer (Coelognathus radiatus), but also ones from elsewhere in Asia, such as the Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii) from the Indian subcontinent and the monocled cobra (Naja kaouthia) from Southeast Asia (Cockram et al, 1990; Wong et al, 2009).
Item on Sale:
The meat and organs of snakes have long been used in traditional Chinese medicine and cuisine (Zhou & Jiang, 2004). Two of the most popular snake products are snake soup and snake wine, which in addition to being delicacies are also both believed to have medicinal properties (Blundy, 2017).
Large bodied and non-native snakes are particularly prized for snake soup, with the latter often sold at higher prices due to the perceived better quality of their meat (Zhou & Jiang, 2004; Wong et al, 2009). Venomous species are particularly sought after for snake wine as their venom is believed to be an important ingredient for it (Blundy, 2017).
It’s hard to determine the full extent of the snake trade in Hong Kong, as a number of the species consumed here are not listed on the Convention for Trade in International Species (CITES) (Landry Yuan, 2020). However, a 2004 study indicated that over half of the snake trade in China is conducted through Hong Kong (Zhou & Jiang, 2004), where snake soup and wine can still be bought in restaurants and traditional medicine shops across the city (Blundy, 2017; Landry Yuan, 2020). More recently, a 2020 study found that Hong Kong was the world’s second-biggest importer of live snakes and the biggest importer of venomous snakes (Hierink et al, 2020).
Along with habitat loss, over-harvesting for the snake trade has the potential to cause drastic declines in wild snake populations, particularly of large- bodied species, which have a high commercial value, take longer to reach sexual maturity, and are more likely to be caught before reproducing. Moreover, relatively few snake species are subject to international trade regulations and even the ones that are, aren’t always sufficiently protected by them (Zhou & Jiang, 2004; Hierink et al, 2020).
Snakes are both important predators of smaller animals and an important food source for other carnivores. Indeed, some birds of prey, like the crested serpent eagle, feed mainly on snakes. So the decline of snakes would not only threaten their predators, but also lead to uncontrolled increases in the animals that they themselves prey upon, including pest species like rats and mice (Landry Yuan, 2020; Gokula, 2012).
In some cases, the snake trade can be very cruel. Snake wine is sometimes made by pushing live snakes inside bottles of alcohol (Blundy, 2017) and venomous species kept for snake soup may have their fangs pulled out to prevent them from harming their handlers (Wong et al, 2009; Li, 2006).
There is also a significant health risk to the snake trade, as workers in snake soup restaurants risk being bitten while handling venomous species that may not have been de-fanged. Being bitten by a non-native species is particularly dangerous, as local hospitals may not possess the anti-venoms needed to treat the bite (Wong et al, 2009). Additionally, many commonly traded snake species carry parasitic worms that can infect humans who eat them (Wang et al, 2011).
How can Hong Kong help?
The demand for snake soup appears to be declining in Hong Kong due to growing environmentalism, a lack of interest amongst young people and its perceived association with the 2003 SARS outbreak (Li, 2006; Chan, 2018; Landry Yuan, 2020). However, it is still fairly popular and could therefore continue to endanger wild snake populations for the foreseeable future. It is therefore important to properly quantify its effects on them.
Historically though, little has been definitively known about the geographic origins or species of snakes most commonly eaten here, making it hard to determine which populations and species are under the greatest potential threat. Fortunately, a recent study by the University of Hong Kong has helped to shed some light on this.
Interviews with snake soup restaurant owners found that the main source of snakes was Southeast Asia — especially Indonesia — followed by China. Meanwhile, genetic analysis of meat samples from restaurants identified the oriental rat snake (Ptyas mucosa) and the Javan spitting cobra (Naja sputatrix) as the most commonly eaten species. The former has already been heavily exploited for snake soup and is listed as endangered under China’s Red List (Jiang et al, 2016), while the latter is not listed on CITES. This shows that some of the most heavily trafficked snakes in Hong Kong are either already threatened or have no official protection.
In light of these findings, the Hong Kong government should increase inspections and monitoring of the volumes and species of imported snakes, especially non-CITES listed species. This study can also be used to inform population studies of affected snakes in their home ranges to determine objectively whether they are at risk of depletion due to the snake trade (Landry Yuan, 2020).
· Blundy, R., ‘Five unethical foods available in Hong Kong’. South China Morning Post, 1 April 2017, https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/2083803/five-unethical-foods-available-hong-kong (Accessed: 12 June 2020).
· Chan, B., ‘Snake restaurant to close in Hong Kong after 110 years, marking end of an era’. South China Morning Post, 11 July 2018, https://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/food-drink/article/2154739/snake-restaurant-hong-kong-close-after-110-years-marking-end (Accessed: 10 December 2020).
· Cockram, C.S., Chan, J.C. and K.Y. Chow. 1990. ‘Bites by the white-lipped pit viper (Trimeresurus albolabris) and other species in Hong Kong. A survey of 4 years’ experience at the Prince of Wales Hospital’. The Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, vol. 93(2): 79pp.–86pp.
· Gokula, V. 2012. ‘Breeding ecology of the crested serpent eagle Spilornis cheela (Latham, 1790) (Aves: Accipitriformes: Accipitridae) in Kolli Hills, Tamil Nadu, India’. Taprobanica, vol. 04(02): 77pp.–82pp.
· Hierink, F., Bolon, I., Durso, A.M., Ruiz de Castañeda, R., Zambrana-Torrelio, C., Eskew, E.A. and N. Ray. 2020. ‘Forty-four years of global trade in CITES-listed snakes: Trends and implications for conservation and public health’. Biological Conservation, vol. 248 (108601).
· Jiang, Z.G., Jiang, J.P., Wang, Y.Z., Zhang, E., Zhang, Y.Y., Li, L.L., Xie, F., Cai, B., Cao, L., Zheng, G.M. and L. Dong. 2016. ‘Red list of China’s vertebrates’. Biodiversity Science vol. 24: 500pp.–551pp.
· Landry Yuan, F., interviewed by Thomas Gomersall, 2020, The University of Hong Kong.
· Li, A., ‘Snake soup, anyone?’. South China Morning Post, 6 May 2006, https://www.scmp.com/article/547589/snake-soup-anyone (Accessed: 17 April 2020).
· Wang, F., Zhou, L.H., Gong, S.P., Deng, Y.Z., Zou, J.J., Wu, J., Liu, W.H. and F.H. Hou. 2011. ‘Severe infection of wild-caught snakes with Spirometra erinaceieuropaei from food markets in Guangzhou, China involves a risk for zoonotic sparganosis’. Journal of Parasitology, vol. 97(1): 170pp.–171pp.
· Wong, O.F., Fung, H.T., Lam, S.K.T., Lam, K.K., Kam, C.W. and I.D. Simpson. 2009. ‘A preliminary survey of Hong Kong snake shops and the potential snake bite risks for the healthcare system’. Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, vol. 103: 931pp.–936pp.
· Zhou, Z.H. and Jiang, Z.G. 2004. ‘International trade status and crisis for snake species in China’. Conservation Biology, vol. 18(5): 1386pp.–1394pp.