Reptiles cover snakes and lizards, as well as alligators, crocodiles, tortoises and turtles. Amphibians include salamanders, caecilians, toads and frogs (they look like snakes but their skin is smooth, not scaly). Although they have existed on earth since the beginning, they are still misunderstood and many people have an aversion of them.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2022 as many as 1,532 species of anurans (frogs) and 825 species of reptiles in the world were critically endangered and vulnerable due to agriculture and its management practices (read pesticides).

Live creatures, such as snakes in ladies’ handbags (a so-called fashion craze) needs to be ridiculed, not glorified as a status symbol or termed “the must-have accessory”. A couple of years ago, it was reported that a lady air passenger’s belt on arrival at UK’s Glasgow airport suddenly took life: the belt turned out to be a harmless live snake which had been chilled prior to the flight to keep it comatose, but which had thawed out in the heat of the terminal.

Items made from skins of reptiles are equally bad, be they from India or abroad, protected or not. Also, baby reptiles are captured, stuffed and sold by poachers for prices ranging from Rs 15/- to Rs 500/-.

We can not forget the big cruelty involved in keeping reptiles in zoos and snake parks where they aren’t even safe from poachers: e.g. 2 pythons were stolen from the snake park in Akurdi (Pune) in August 2017. Scientific evidence indicates that reptiles should never be imprisoned or handled by humans (even for a few minutes and more so for a photograph which is a common occurrence) as this harms them more than one can imagine. Such handling is taken to the extreme in cases where people, to attract public attention, have lived for several days in a cage full of different varieties of poisonous and non-poisonous snakes as well as had scorpions crawling all over them. Needless to say such sarp yagnas promoting so-called ‘feats of valour’ are meaningless. Thank goodness these yagnas have been banned in states like West Bengal and Kerala.

The trend of handing snakes seemed to have resurfaced in 2010 with a couple having a unique wedding ceremony in the Satoda jungle and using snakes as garlands. However, researchers have over the years always tried their best to burst mistaken beliefs like all brightly coloured snakes and geckos are poisonous. Actually, sea snakes that dwell in water for up to three hours at a time are more venomous than cobras.

The King Cobra, the longest venomous snake and also having the most venom, was declared a vulnerable species and placed on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to an IUCN a June 2012 report, 10% of snakes endemic to the Western Ghats, China and South East Asia face the threat of extinction because “snakes are used in traditional medicines and in anti-venom serum, as food, and as sources of income from the sale of skins”. (Significantly, the medical symbol, a version of the Greek Caduceus, has two snakes coiled around a staff with wings on top.) The King Cobra is however protected under Schedule II of India’s Wildlife Protection Act.

In 2017 WHO added snakebite to its list of highest priority neglected tropical diseases. In 2018 the World Health Assembly passed a resolution hoping that snakebites would be researched further and anti-venom made available easily. The same year September 19th was declared as International Snakebite Awareness Day by a global coalition of health organisations.

World Snake Day falls on 16 July.

Snake Worship

Snake gods feature in Hindu temples. For example, devotees offer prayers at Kukke Subramaniya Nagaraja temple in Karnataka. The shed skin of the King Cobra is also worshiped. Childless couples, who have taken vows and are later blessed, name their children beginning with Nag...

Interestingly, in Agumbe (Shimoga district of Karnataka) where all snakes are worshipped, the King Cobra thrives (it eats common cobras and rat snakes).

For Maha Shivarati 2013 celebrations in Jalandhar a man dressed as Lord Shiva participated in a religious procession holding a python/ajgar in his hand which obviously resulted in stress and strain for the poor reptile, more so as coloured powders were being thrown around. Serpents are said to be blessed by Lord Shiva since he is depicted wearing a snake round his neck. Snake charmers are therefore quite likely to be spotted outside Lord Shiva temples. Also according to Hindu mythology Lord Vishnu is associated with snakes because he rests under the shade of a giant snake. There are many communities in different parts of India that observe nagaradhane or snake worship in some form or another.

A four century old practice of maiming snakes after they are defanged for public shows in honour of the serpent deity Manasa Devi at the annual Jhapan Mela in Bishnupur (West Bengal) was stopped in August 2015 by the forest department officials who acted on a complaint.

Nag Panchmi

The Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, bans the display of wild animals, but this law has been blatantly violated, albeit to a much lesser extent by 2013, and celebrations involving worshiping live snakes at Nag Panchmi have been overlooked.

Snakes are caught from the forests and kept in small boxes, plastic jars, sacks, baskets or earthen pots. They are starved and their fangs brutally pulled out. Their mouths are usually stitched shut, some times with a space left for their tongues to come out. That’s why many confiscated snakes die even if released back into the wilds.

Spectators are to believe that snakes dance to music, but this is not true because snakes don’t have ears. They sway to the movements of the flutes and spread their hoods to defend themselves. The haldi, kumkum and gulal sprinkled on the snakes inevitably enter their eyes, blinding some of them because of the lead content.

Only mammals can produce and drink milk. Snakes being reptiles do not normally drink milk but because they are kept without food and water for many days after being caught from the wild, they try to drink milk in an attempt to re-hydrate.

On Nag Panchmi festival the village of Battis Shirala in Maharashtra comes alive with snakes. Villagers rise early, decorate their verandahs with rangoli and visit the temple. Groups of Nagraj Mandals catch the snakes prior to the day and take them to the temple in earthen pots. At the temple, the cotton covering is removed from the mouths of the pots and the snakes slither out. A person then catches the tail and with the help of the pot men entice the snakes to spread their hoods. Devotees then anoint the snakes with haldi, kum kum and gulal. The snakes are put back into the pots, sealed and taken from house to house to perform the same puja – a repetitive, cruel ritual for the poor snakes. The following day, they are released back into the wild from where they were captured. But, the fact is that after the ordeal, they can not and do not survive if their venom has been removed.

In 2009 about 500 persons were approached by BWC in Bhopal and requested not to encourage saperas during the Nag Panchmi festival. BWC also got the police to restrict about 50 snake-charmers from making the rounds, and a dozen cobras were seized. They were returned to the wilds immediately. Also BWC visited Battis Shirala where despite the Wildlife Department’s order to catch only 5 snakes, the usual number which far exceeded the directive were caught and displayed.

The public awareness created pointing out the cruelty involved, has certainly resulted in a lesser number of snakes being exploited every year. For example, at Battis Shirala subsequent to the High Court banning exhibition of cobras during the procession of the festival, no more than about 50 snakes were caught and displayed for Nag Panchmi 2011. An achievement: the number having come down from 500 that used to be caught in the village.

Three days before Nag Panchmi 2013, the Bombay High Court directed the Maharashtra state’s forest authorities to strictly ensure that the provisions of the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, were not breached during the festival. It was specifically stated that no procession with exhibition or display of snakes, even in vehicles, be allowed with particular reference to Battis Shirala and adjoining villages in Sangli district. Despite this, newspapers reported that snakes captured some days earlier, kept in earthen pots and fed a rat or frog daily, were displayed at the Goddess Ambabai temple before being released.

By 2017 residents of Battis Shirala and other villages in Maharashtra had begun worshipping snake replicas with as much fervour as when live snakes were allowed to be used in their traditional ritual on Nag Panchmi.

In 2020 and 2021 due to Covid-19 restrictions entry points to the Battis Shirala town were shut and prohibitory orders were imposed on Nag Panchmi. The palanquin procession was not allowed and only 10 persons (who were given passes) were permitted to offer prayers to the local deity.

Snake Skin

The industry uses the term “harvesting” in place of the word “killing” reptiles for their skins. Conservationists who are in favour of the reptile skin trade come out with the ridiculous argument that “harvesting” programmes help conserve species – and provide livelihood benefits. They do not consider reptiles as living beings or that they are important to the ecosystem and some like the gecko are pollinators.

In 1976 BWC began creating an awareness of the cruelties inflicted upon reptiles for their skins. Evidence of snakes skinned alive, and crocodiles illegally captured for obtaining leather used for luxury items was condemned by BWC. Alternative non-animal materials that looked like monitor lizard, python skin, etc. goods were promoted by BWC. BWC’s plea to stop trade in reptile skins was granted when 1980 onwards, all types of snakes were given protection under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

When trade in reptile skins was banned, initially the leather industry came up with calf leather embossed and finished in different ways to look like snake, python and monitor lizard skins, as also crocodile and alligator leather. Traders proudly said it was not reptile skin but an alternative. On questioning and examination it was discovered that the material was in fact calf leather, finished to closely resemble reptile skin.

This trend resurfaced in 2009 with Da Milano snake print (and jungle theme, other animal prints and animal skins) handbags, footwear, belts and accessories made of leather/skin.

These days actual snake skin items like footwear, handbags, wallets, belts and watch-straps may not be seen on people that often, but that does not mean that snakes are no longer illegally skinned in India. Also reptile skin items are available since 2021 when India lifted the import ban.

In snake-infested areas like some districts of Tamil Nadu, catching and killing snakes for their skins (the most sought after being the saral or cobra skin) results in additional income for villagers.

The snake-skin is obtained in one piece by nailing the head of to a tree, slitting the body from end to end with a knife and then pealing the skin off which is then preserved in salt pots till sold to wholesalers. Quite often the victim remains alive for a couple of days without its skin.

A by-product of the snake-skin industry is oil from their livers that is extracted for medicinal and polishing purposes.

Snake Venom

The Irulas – tribal folk from Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh – used to catch snakes with the help of a simple stick and were the main suppliers of snake skins (they are also known to eat them). But, when the ban on trade in snake skins came about, they formed the Irula Snake Catcher’s Co-operative and switched to catching snakes for venom extraction. A Venom Bank was thus set up near Chennai in 1978.

The Forest Department specifies the number of snake/species they can catch. They trap Indian cobras (for Rs 2000/-), Russell’s Vipers (for Rs 700/), common kraits and Saw-scaled Vipers (Rs 250/- each) from Kancheepuram and Chengalpet districts. The snakes are kept in clay pots half filled with sand and glucose water and venom is extracted from each one once a week for a month. The snakes are then released back into the wild. When bitten by snakes they themselves don’t use anti-venom, but rely on their own traditional herbal cures.

In 2023 two Irula tribals were conferred the Padma Shri award for catching venomous snakes.

The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust is one of the approved snake venom extraction centres in India. Its snake farm has a daily venom extraction show (read attraction gimmick) for the public. Extraction of venom from snakes is also done at the Calcutta Snake Park, and may be at other places, including unofficially. Whereas, the processing of snake venom (for which horses are used) is undertaken at places like the Haffkine Institute (Pune), Serum Institute (Pune), Central Research Institute (Solan), Bharat Serum and Vaccine (Mumbai), and Christian Medical College Venom Research Centre (Visakhapatnam).

At all such places the snake venom that has been extracted is injected into retired race horses a little at a time till they become immune after which the horses’ blood is drawn and utilised in the making of anti-venom antidotes. This production process in which a small amount of venom is injected into a horse (or sheep) which produces antibodies that are then collected and developed into anti-venom is absolutely archaic.

In 2010 The Punjab Wildlife Preservation Department issued a notice to Lovely Professional University in Jalandhar, seeking an explanation over acquisition of highly expensive venom of a cobra, Russell’s Viper and Saw-scaled Viper from Haffekine Institute, Pune, without intimating the state governments. Moreover, the research to be carried out had got no clearance.

In 2012 Haffkine Bio-pharmaceutical Ltd developed an easy-to-use venom kit for treating snake bites from the “big four” most poisonous snakes: Indian Spectacled Cobra (Naja naja), Russell’s Viper (Daboia russelii), Common Krait (Bungarus caeruleus) and Saw Scaled Viper (Echis carinatus). (Ironically, the composition of the venom of the same specie of snake four in different areas of India varies.) It has been estimated that 35,000 to 50,000 deaths occur every year due to snake bites in India, especially in rural areas where there is insufficient time for the victim to be rushed to a Hospital for treatment. To encourage research in snake poisons in 2018 Maharashtra approved the setting up of a National Venom Research Centre and approached the central government to aid the Haffkine Institute to initiate research and study 52 species of snakes.

However, in 2020 an international team of researchers reported that they had sequenced the genome of the Indian Cobra, in the process identifying the genes that define the venom. This they hoped could in the future provide a blueprint for developing more effective anti-venom using synthetic human antibodies. About 50,000 snakebite deaths a year that are attributed to the big four the common anti-venom works only against the Saw Scaled Viper and Cobra but falls short against and some other species including the Common Krait.

Similarly, the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council which is funded by the Department of Biotechnology also collects venom from 4 states of India situated in the North, South, East and West and has been studying venom properties.

In 2009 a news item stated that the Maharashtra government was all set to made snake venom trade legal by permitting extraction from rescued snakes; and that a multi-purpose welfare society for snake rescuers was formed at Dhulia, with a venom extraction centre at Nashik. The justification cited was that the snake rescuers rendered voluntary service to remove snakes from human localities, so this would give them a source of income! Luckily such a ruling did not materialise.

However in September 2012, 12 sarpa mitras from Gadchiroli, Akola, Nagpur and Dahegaon in Maharashtra were found to be illegally selling snake venom. 8 ml worth Rs 7-8 lakhs was seized along with 7 live cobras, a chameleon and a grass snake. The persons were trapped while making a deal for procuring 300 ml venom worth Rs 3 crores. It was suspected that the clandestine venom trade had been going on in the Vidarbha area for several years. The modus operandi used was that the groups advertise that they rescue and release snakes but after catching them, they extract venom and sell it. BWC does not find this in the least surprising because exploiting animals is a common trait among wildlife enthusiasts and conservationists. So true to form, again in May 2013, six persons were arrested, this time by the Lonavla police, and 2 litres worth of snake venom valued at Rs 2 crore was seized.

This confiscation occurred in-between snake venom smuggling rackets that were busted by the Police at Sangli (1 litre) in December 2012, at Pune in August 2013 (500 ml), and again in January 2014 (2 litres) at Pune. In fact, snake venom worth crores of Rupees (said to have risen from Rs 40 lakhs per litre in 2008 to Rs 2.7 crores in 2012) gets seized by forest officials all over India every few months like 1 litre in June 2012 and 750 ml in April 2013 in South India. In July 2016, 7 men trying to sell 1000 ml of snake venom worth Rs 2 crore were arrested in Pune. The gang was found to be operating illegally in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Goa. Again in December 2016 a family of 4 were found to be living with 31 cobras and 41 Russell’s vipers in Pune: there was involvement of a sarpa mitra who used to “rescue” but hand over snakes to his friend who kept them for extraction of venom and its illegal sale. Three bottles of snake venom were also seized from the apartment. Investigations soon led to the arrest of a biology firm owner from Sangli.

The Police say that diluted snake venom injections @ Rs 4,000/- sold under code names K-76 and K-72 are used at rave parties by junkies to get high. Whereas the Narcotics Control Bureau says all it takes is a pinch of dry cobra venom powder to be added to an alcoholic drink for that extra kick.
In November 2023 at Noida during a raid at a banquet hall 5 persons were arrested for supplying 9 venomous snakes and venom for rave parties. Again in March 2024, a person was arrested for alleged supplying snake venom to make opiods at rave parties.

The fact is that as soon as snake venom is extracted it needs to be freeze-dried into powder, otherwise it spoils. This makes the liquid venom that being usually seized, valueless. Since only 3 to 4 ml of venom can be extracted from a single snake, it is next to impossible to illegally gather around the same time venom from about 150 snakes to make up even half a litre. What is probably happening is that adulterated venom in liquid form is being hawked to gullible people at exorbitant rates. There is no such thing as venom addiction and the decades’ old story of cobras made to bite addicts’ tongues in addas at erstwhile Calcutta and Bombay was an urban myth.

Meanwhile, a Rice University (Houston, USA) chemist feels viper venom could just be the thing to stop post-operative bleeding.

In 2023 researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Jodhpur used snake venom to fight antibiotic resistance by developing an anti-microbial peptide molecule that can kill bacteria like E.coli, P.aeruginosa and K.pneumonia.

Snakes in our Midst

Between 2003 and 2015 as per government hospital records the snake bite prone states were
Andhra Pradesh:
25,13,000 snake bites and 14,000 deaths
76,200 snake bites and 18,000 deaths
71,300 snake bites and 1,000 deaths
4,57,000 snake bites and 800 deaths
Madhya Pradesh:
2,83,000 snake bites and 11,000 deaths
Uttar Pradesh:
2,78,000 snake bites and 600 deaths
2,09,000 snake bites and 1,000 deaths

Most snake bite cases are recorded between June and September and the victims are usually farm labourers.

It is said that only about 3% of the actual deaths that occur due to snake bites in India are recorded and that the majority occur in Uttar Pradesh. Also that around 54 lakh snakebites occur each year of which less than 50% are due to poisonous snakes and of these about 1.4 lakh die usually due to poor knowledge and experience of doctors in rural areas and a delay in treatment. In rural areas anti-venom is not always available and even if available, the doses in India are not strong like those available abroad, moreover, people have great faith in temples and so rush to get sacred threads tied and pray they survive.

Some people think mothballs can keep away snakes but it is not so. The natural repellents to keep them away are growing lemongrass, snake plant/mother-in-law’s tongue and marigold which keep mosquitoes away as well. Crush some garlic cloves, add water and spray every few days; like garlic onions also contain sulfonic acid and snakes avoid the strong smell. Two potent essential oils are clove and cinnamon and can be mixed and sprayed.

The Courts are now aware that it is very common in Rajasthan to use poisonous snakes for killing the elderly in particular therefore suspects are not easily acquitted and they do get away with murder.

India has about 270 species of snakes (covering water, land and burrowing snakes) of which only 60 are venomous. Of these, the most dangerous is the Common Krait (Bungarus caeruleus). The best known Indian Cobra (Naja naja) is also very poisonous, as are the Russell’s Viper (Vipera Russelli) and Saw Scaled Viper (Echis carinatus).

The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust’s Centre for Herpetology organises Tails to Trails adventure workshops covering reptiles, amphibians, insects and arachnids in different places like the Western Ghats. (Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians.)

If the surrounding area has vegetation, sometimes snakes come uninvited into our homes. The panic this creates is not as bad as a few decades back when a snake would have been promptly put to death in a most barbaric manner. (Snakes do not take revenge, but killing a snake might certainly attract others to the spot by the smell from the dead one.) If a snake crosses your path, it is best to keep completely out of its way and immediately call an ophiologist, i.e. a person specialised in handling snakes. However, make absolutely sure that the snake he captures is immediately released in a wild area and not kept in captivity. Incidentally in two years more than 100 snakes were caught on Mumbai’s Raj Bhavan premises. 

On the other hand, the rapid pace of development in the Western Ghats has threatened the habitat of non-venomous snakes. Added to which they are frequently killed on the highway by speeding vehicles. It is illegal to kill snakes, but humans do it out of fear of being bitten. Actually snakes are scared of humans!

The Mamasaheb Laad Vidyalay in Dholgarwadi (situated in Chandgad tehsil, 105 kms from Kolhapur in Maharashtra, and 25 kms from Belagavi in Karnataka) commonly called the “snake school” was started in 1966 with the aim of removing the fear of snakes from young minds. It claims to have converted thousands of persons into “snake friends”.

Having great love for snakes is called ophiophilia, whereas fear for them is ophidiophobia or snakephobia. Some people “love” red sand boas or mannoli pambu because they believe these “double-headed” snakes have supernatural powers and possessing them will bring them good luck and destroy their enemies. Or if kept in one’s house, whatever one wishes materialises. They are therefore illegally sold for as much as Rs 1 crore in South India. In October 2016, when a man was arrested in Pune for possessing a sand boa he said chemical and pharmaceutical companies used them for making medicines. Again in October 2018 a youth and his accomplice were arrested trying to sell a sand boa in Pune. And soon after yet again in January 2019 two men were caught red-handed trying to sell a sand boa to customers in Moshi, at the intersection of Pune and Nashik, followed in February 2019 by another man from Kalwa, Thane district, trying to sell a sand boa for 1 lakh. Yet another mandul (the local name under which sand boa is known) was found and confiscated by the Police from two men who had brought it from Amravati district to Pune for sale in June 2019. In fact, by then as many as 20 snakes had been seized in parts of Maharashtra. Most were to be smuggled mainly to China, Nepal, Malaysia, and even to USA.

Catching people with sand boas is common which makes BWC wonder how many must have got away selling or smuggling them without being apprehended. Once again in August 2020 the Crime Branch of the Pune Police arrested two farmers who were trying to sell a sand boa for Rs 22 lakh. Unfortunately the snake was sent to the Katraj zoo instead of the Maharashtra Forest Department releasing it in the wild from where it had been captured.

In November 2022 a woman from Pune was arrested on arrival from the general compartment of the Nilanchal Express train at Tatanagar, Jamshedpur (Jharkhand) with 2 sand boas, 1 albino python, 4 red pythons, 19 ball pythons, 12 green pythons and 300 spiders & chameleons. She said she was a courier and had received Rs 8,000/- from a Dimapur (Nagaland) based person for transporting the consignment. The seized creatures, valued around Rs 5 crore, were handed over to the Forest Department who suspected this consignment was a part of a large smuggling network.

The Walk Through India website has listed the Red Sand Boa (Eryx johnii) as one of the five most heavily trafficked animals of India. They say that this two headed snake as it is commonly called, is one of the non-venomous of the boa species and endemic to the Indian subcontinent. The snake is mostly found in the semi-desert and dry foothills of Rajasthan and fetches a huge amount of money in illegal trade within India because of blind faith that makes people believe it brings good luck to the owner.

Snake Charmers

Decades back 100 saperas were sent to Italy. No wonder one of the images associated with India abroad is that of a land of snake charmers (people who hypnotise snakes and make them sway to music from their flutes called been and tumba) even though they are a dying breed because the law forbids such roadside shows. The community claims to consist of 1.5 lakh snake charmers in India who are struggling to make two ends meet – so in a few years there will be no more snake charmers because they are taking to other occupations. But, snake charmers do continue to entertain people in villages of India. May be this was why in February 2014, snake charmers were allowed to illegally display snakes at the Virasat (Heritage) Fair in Bhatinda, Punjab, resulting in a notice being served on the authorities.

A number of snake charmers are also seen outside hotels like those in Agra which get considerable foreign clientele. Here the snake charmers hail from the village Toola Tiwaria nearby. Come rain or shine, these madaris attract a crowd around them, open their baskets and play the flute making the poor snakes within literally dance to their tunes. Snakes do not have ears and so it is not true that cobras dance to music; they simply sway to the movement of the snake charmer’s flute.

The Bedia tribe of West Bengal claim to have 50,000 snake charmers of which 20,000 are languishing in jail for having defied the ban. They have formed the Bedia Federation of India which fights for their rights and rehabilitation plans which they feel should involve something like snake venom extraction. However, the fact is the snakes’ fangs are removed, they are kept in boxes for weeks and the milk they may be fed is inappropriate nourishment. Last but not least, as a safety measure, some charmers stitch the mouths of the snakes they’ve captured from the wild.

In 2010 there was a newspaper report that stated the Government had put into effect the ban on snakes used by snake charmers hailing from the Sapera Basti village near Badarpur on the outskirts of Delhi, as a result of which they had learnt to play a few new musical instruments like a trumpet, and had formed 40 musical bands consisting of 12-14 members each and they had started playing at weddings and parties. In 2016 posters advertising Been Parties were seen in the Sapera Basti. Such small time performances at night were keeping the youth of the community going.

In April 2011, 42 snakes were injected with micro-chips in Delhi. This was done to ensure that individual snakes kept and registered with the Forest Department are not replaced.

Under the Declaration of Wild Life Stock Rules, 2003, Certificate of Ownership was to be applied for and provided as per the provisions of section 42 of the Wild Life Protection Act. However, any captive animal (or article/trophy) not having been granted a Certificate of Ownership would be treated as government property.

Tourists are also attracted to snake and mongoose fights. Such roadside shows are visibly cruel and illegal. The usual scenario is that it takes so long for the wild life and police personnel to arrive on the spot the fight gets over (with the mongoose always winning) and the group pack up and leave the area!

(Incidentally mongooses also attack and are known to have eaten scorpions, frogs, lizards, poultry, pigeons, rats, and particularly bird’s eggs.)

Eating Snakes

Snake consumption is not common in most cultures, although considered a delicacy for certain people, e.g. snake soup is part of Cantonese cuisine.

Snake oil or shéyóu in Chinese is a traditional medicine derived from the water snake and used to treat pain in joints – it is openly sold in China’s pharmacies.

Snake wine is an alcoholic beverage produced in China, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea, Cambodia, etc. by infusing whole snakes in rice wine, or grain alcohol. The snakes are steeped for months in bottles to which herbs are added. Cobra or snake wine made fresh is considered an aphrodisiac. It utilises snake body fluids like blood from its belly which is slit and blood drained directly into a glass containing some rice wine or grain alcohol, and bile, similarly extracted. Interestingly, some restaurants in Bengaluru have been caught selling snake blood and venom named “cobra shot” as an aphrodisiac.

Snake, crocodile and monitor lizard preparations are also sold illegally, especially in Chinese restaurants in India. Some North Eastern tribes are known to kill snakes for their meat. An insider from an infantry battalion of the Indian Army once stated that Ghatak commandos are compulsorily taught to eat snakes as a lesson in survival as snakes are found every where.

Eating with Snakes

Tokyo has a snake café similar to cat cafés. There is an entrance fee and an additional amount is charged to pet the snakes. Otherwise, one of the 20 breeds would be placed in a cage on the customer’s table.

BWC feels it is cruel exploitation – some thing that snakes should never be subjected to – for commercial gain.

Pythons and Rabbits

Believe it or not, in Jakarta, Indonesia snake massages are given mainly to tourists. Using two metre long pythons that slide, drape and roll over clients, the snakes’ scaly, cold skin is supposed to do the massaging. The pythons’ diet consists of live rabbits so it is not only the snakes, but the rabbits too that suffer, more so the terrified rabbits.

Illegal Import and Export of Wild Life Items

In September 2011, FIAPO approached BWC for guidance on stopping advertisements in publications such as Vogue and sale of such animal products ranging from fur and feathers to python skins.

This reminded BWC to again draw the attention of the Ministry of Environment & Forests about wild life skins such as those of snakes, pythons, crocodiles, monitor lizards, and feathers and furs of endangered species that are imported into India. (These genuine wild life skins should not be confused with similar looking imported imitations.) They come in as finished goods consisting of footwear and handbags costing lakhs of rupees, to watchstraps of expensive wrist watches, even mobile cases. The advertisements and brand promotions target those Indians seeking such ill-conceived status symbols.

In fact, these branded goods are brazenly advertised in high-society magazines such as Vogue, Hello, and some times in unexpected ones like Businessworld. Quite often the "price is available on request" and an order needs to be placed after which the item is imported for the purchaser. The products are therefore not on display at their outlets so government raids would not give the desired results.

It was further pointed out that the government should not feel that it does not concern India because the skins are not of Indian origin. Imports should be clamped down upon and not overlooked because such imported items result in more poaching of wild life here. BWC feels that just like the ban on trade in ivory of Indian and African elephants which falls under CITES can be implemented, trade of other wild life skins can be stopped, and not only on paper.

BWC has therefore requested that government warn outlets against promotion and import, and the Customs authorities spot and take action against importers of such illegal items.

We are eagerly awaiting positive action and response from the government. Meanwhile, letters are being written by animal activists to Vogue asking “Is animal cruelty so much in vogue?”

Imports of such wild life items that surreptitiously land in India need to be clamped down upon and not overlooked because they positively result in more poaching of wild life here. It should also not be forgotten that many leather goods made in India are exported to designers abroad and should they ask for say snake skin, the Indian manufacturers may oblige and declare the items as calf leather embossed to look like reptile skin, but on reaching their destination, the items would be labelled as genuine snake skin.

Wildlife poachers have already begun to illegally use India Post to smuggle products out of the country. Deer antlers, reptile skins, elephant-ivory and tiger-nails have been intercepted, but unfortunately a high percentage of parcels have left the country undetected. Moreover, the culprits have not been located because the senders’ addresses on the parcels are fictitious. We therefore alerted the Department of Posts and suggested that each and every parcel that goes abroad be rechecked at the Foreign Post Offices via screening prior to onward despatch out of India.

In May 2013 BWC wrote to the Minister of Finance requesting that appropriate action via the Central Board of Excise and Customs be taken. By then a few got round the law by importing reptile skin like that of anaconda (similar to python) and got the items discreetly mentioned in articles covering luxury goods. Some stores, having got away with bringing in items without difficulty, began stocking “Limited edition for India” goods like alligator and ostrich clutch bags, whereas other brands continued with their customisation “Made to Order” exclusive and expensive offers of crocodile and other exotic skin “masterpieces”.

On 3 January 2017 the Directorate of Foreign Trade issued an amendment (DGFT Notification No 33/2015-2020) to the import policy prohibiting reptile skins, mink, fox, and chinchilla fur. Moreover, on 28 March 2018 DGFT Public Notice 59 stated “Policy Condition: Import of seal skin, in any form, is prohibited” under Chapter 41, 42 and 43 of ITC (HS), 2017. Unfortunately the 3 January 2017 Policy was reversed from “Prohibited” to “Free” vide Notification No 55/2015-2020 dated 7 January 2021. On getting to know in April 2021 BWC approached the Prime Minister and the Union Minister for Commerce & Industry, as well as the Union Minister of Health & Family Welfare, to again reverse and place reptile skins, mink, fox, chinchilla and add all animal furs in the Prohibited category of the Import Policy particularly in view of foreign fur farms having closed down due to Covid-19. BWC got to later know that the removal of the import prohibition had been taken up by the Council for Leather Exports and thus their request was granted.

Not only reptile skins, but there was an attempt in October 2019 to smuggle 7 healthy reptiles (1 green tree python, 1 scrub python and 5 endangered species of lizards) from Malaysia into India. The Indian Customs officials at Chennai discovered them with two passengers and decided to send the reptiles back to Kuala Lumpur.

Page last updated on 18/03/24