Understanding markets crucial to wildlife conservation
6 July 2010, by Tamera Jones
Between two and 12 million wild snakes are taken from Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia every year in the largest snake hunt in the world.
A crocodile farm in South East Asia
But if conservationists want to protect these snakes, they need to understand exactly what drives the demand for them, say scientists.
Rather than imposing a blanket ban on snake hunters, research led by Dr Sharon Brooks from the University of East Anglia suggests that banning hunting only during the snakes' breeding season is probably a better way to help populations recover.
'The numbers of snakes being landed daily at Chong Khneas in northern Cambodia is shocking. And if you were to look at snake hunting in isolation, your immediate reaction might be to impose a strict ban,' says Brooks.
Multi-billion dollar industry
The growth in the export of Asian wildlife has exploded in recent years and is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Despite this, scientists know little about what lies behind the supply and demand for many of the countries' plants and animals.
Imposing tight trade regulations often has a detrimental effect on local populations and bans don't necessarily conserve the species they're designed to protect.
'If you impose a ban, you can often make the situation worse, and there is a need to understand the economics behind the trade in order to devise more effective solutions,' says Brooks.
Tonle Sap Lake is the largest wetland in Southeast Asia and with its abundance of wildlife is estimated to support around a million people.
'If you impose a ban, you can often make the situation worse, and there is a need to understand the economics behind the trade in order to devise more effective solutions.'
Dr Sharon Brooks, University of East Anglia
The annual monsoon from May to October fills the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers to bursting, causing the water in the Tonle Sap River to reverse direction and flood the surrounding forests, grasslands and paddy fields. This is when the snake hunters are busiest.
To find out whether or not the massive Tonle Sap snake hunt is sustainable, Brooks and her colleagues decided to see exactly where the snakes were going. Their research is published in Biological Conservation.
'We knew that lots of snakes were being harvested, but we didn't really know much more than that,' says Brooks. 'We needed to find out how the markets operated.'
Although the seven snake species are hunted to supply a range of markets, such as exotic leather, animal feed and snack food, the researchers found that the biggest demand for Tonle Sap snakes doesn't come from international markets.
Instead, by far the biggest demand comes from Cambodian crocodile farms.
But the crocodile market is highly volatile, going through cycles of boom and bust - dictated to by changing economic situations in the countries that import them.
'The market price for crocodiles has gone down since 2003, which together with rising prices for snakes had led to many smaller farms closing down,' explains Brooks.
In contrast, the larger farms have stayed open, in the hope that crocodile prices will return to pre-2003 levels. This means the demand for snakes is still strong.
'There is also the possibility that the same snakes will find their way into other markets, such as that for human snack food which is gaining popularity,' says Brooks.
The researchers found that the price of snakes depends largely on the price of fish, which are the main food used to feed crocodiles, and farmers are mainly using snakes in times of fish shortage. This response to availability is likely to increase the sustainability of this system of exploitation.
If the lake's snakes were protected during the main breeding season, this would still allow snake hunters and crocodile farms to trade at the time of year when it is most important to them.
The Wildlife Conservation Society in Cambodia is building on this research and has recently discussed different management options to help conserve Tonle Sap's snakes.
'Our findings demonstrate the importance of a detailed analysis of markets to traded wildlife conservation,' adds Brooks.
Sharon E. Brooks, Edward H. Allison, Jennifer A. Gill and John D. Reynolds, Snake prices and crocodile appetites: Aquatic wildlife supply and demand on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia, Biological Conservation, available online 22 June 2010, doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2010.05.023
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