Water Snake and Crocodile DinnersFebruary 27, 2005
It is not just fish that comes from the Tonle Sap Great Lake
With the reported decline in fish harvests from the Tonle Sap Great Lake there has been an increased demand for alternative and inexpensive food sources for people; as well as for captive crocodiles reared commercially around the lake. Increasing in intensity about three years ago, part of this need has been filled by water snakes. Additionally, the ova of at least one species are sold as a human food delicacy, the skins of at least two species are exported to Thailand, and at least one species is exported live to Vietnam and China. Information shows that Last year the harvest was upwards of 8,500 water snakes per day.
This represents the greatest exploitation of any single snake family in the world. Of particular interest is the heavy exploitation of the Tonle Sap Water snake enhydris longicauda, which is prevalent in the Tonle Sap region. This recent increase in the use of water snakes may be unsustainable, and management measures may be necessary to reduce exploitation to within sustainable levels.
A large crocodile farming industry also thrives in the Tonle Sap provinces. Although historical evidence shows the captive rearing of crocodiles dating back to the 10th century, the modern crocodile farming industry boomed in the late 1980?s with the creation of a free market economy. The crocodiles are raised for their skins, which are exported to Thailand.
The majority of crocodile farms are small-scale family-run operations where a small number of animals are raised and sold for profit, although larger commercial farms holding over 100 animals also exist.
In 1997 approximately 18,000 crocodiles were estimated to be held in captivity in Siem Reap and Battambang Provinces. Despite the high numbers of captive animals, crocodile farmers report that the industry had been at a standstill since the market for skins collapsed in 1998; following the economic recession in Thailand. Few crocodiles have been slaughtered since that time apparently, but captive stock continues to be maintained while farm owners wait for the industry to revive.
In the past, the large scale crocodile farming depended on productive fisheries as a food supply. However, in recent years, fish catches from the lake have declined and subsequently fish prices have risen. The water snakes that were also caught by fishermen in their gillnets and fish traps became cheaper than fish, and, as a consequence, a large market developed for these snakes as an alternative, cheaper source of food for captive crocodiles and for human consumption.
Most water snakes are captured with gillnets, and occasionally in bamboo fish traps. Dead snakes were frequently seen with pieces of gillnet entangled around their bodies, evidence of their method of capture. Fishermen also spear, noose, or catch with electro-fishing equipment the larger, more valuable snakes; these reports of larger snakes may refer to Enhydris bocourti or Homalopsis buccata, but also to snakes that have an inherent trade value, such as cobras and pythons.
It appears that crocodiles are fed mostly on dead snakes (those that had drowned in gillnets”). Crocodile farmers estimate that they fed 2 or 3 kg of snakes per week to each sub-adult or adult crocodile in the wet season. Assuming that all crocodiles were fed snakes and not fish, this equates to a potential demand for 6,300 to 18,900 kg of snakes per week in Siem Reap and Battambang Provinces.
Water snakes are also sold domestically for human consumption and the ova of Enhydris enhydris are sold separately as an expensive delicacy.
Large individuals, dead or alive, are sold domestically for their skins, which are processed in Cambodia and exported to Thailand, or are selectively removed from catches and re-routed for international export to Vietnam. These are probably destined for the food trade in Vietnam and subsequent re-export for the food trade in China.
In March 2000 the Forest Protection Department in Vietnam, seized a shipment containing 200 kg of live water snakes en route to the China border.
Water snakes originating from Tonle Sap [and probably elsewhere in Cambodia] are legally exported by KAMFIMEX, a Cambodian Government export agency for aquatic products, by air from Phnom Penh to Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China. Water snakes are mixed in these shipments with turtles and venomous snakes.
The price for smaller water snakes ranges from 1,000 to 2,000 Riel/kg (US$0.25 to 0.50/kg)
Enhydris bocourti commands up to 10 times that price because of its value for leather and for live export.
Other examples of large-scale commercial exploitation of other snake populations in the world are known. Sea snakes, sea kraits, and Acrochordus granulatus are harvested for meat and leather in Japan the Philippines.
Sea snakes are also harvested for the leather industry in Australia. Rattlesnakes are annually harvested and killed for their meat and skins in North America. Probably the world?s largest commercial trade in snakes centres on traditional Chinese medicine and food trades. High demands in China for snakes such as pythons, rat snakes, and cobras reach beyond political borders, and source countries for these snakes now include at least Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Myanmar, and probably other countries in the region.
Unfortunately, few data are available on the natural densities of water snakes, so it is difficult to determine if there are abundant supplies within the Tonle Sap to satiate a continued demand.
Monitoring of water snake harvesting and trade is currently not a priority for the authorities. However, the Tonle Sap water snake harvest should be viewed by those responsible for natural resource management as an economically important ‘fishery’ because of the inverse relationship between the water snakes and fish harvests, and because of the use as an alternative protein source for people and captive crocodiles.
So, the next time you are in a Khmer restaurant, why not give the fish a miss and ask if they have any nice, slow baked, water snake.