The Costly and Illegal Snake Trade

Photograph by: Unknown (if you know please drop a comment)

Open any activism site and there are a slew of petitions and articles condemning the horrors of animal smuggling. It is a market that is ever growing and circulates an estimated $19 billion USD in revenue. However, among these, reptiles are rarely a primary focus. Especially with so much outcry against whale hunting, the ivory trade, and shark fishing dominating the activism stage. Of those you may find regarding the smuggle of reptiles, snakes make up an even smaller niche. Despite this, as little as 1 liter of snake venom can sale from $215,000 to $235,000 dollars. They are sold for skins, for venom, likely for pets in some cases, and for uses as aphrodisiacs.

Despite the consequences of live animal smuggling, and snake smuggling in particular, it isn’t a topic I had considered until recently. I interned with a petition organization, advocating animal welfare and safety. During that time, it never occurred to me to address this corner of the black market. In a way, it seemed almost counter-intuitive that anyone would not automatically acknowledge the illegality of keeping venomous snakes in their home, much less attempting to make a business from selling their venom. Not until I was talking with my boss about some of the crazy things one sees when working in real estate. He told me about a rented home he visited once, where the tenants were keeping rattle snakes in aquariums covered by slats of wood weighted by stones. Anyone with a survival instinct would consider how idiotic that is, not to mention illegal. However, he didn’t know. I didn’t realize they didn’t know until a colleague asked why ‘anyone would want a rattle snake for a pet.’ At the moment, I was shocked they didn’t know. Later, I kept thinking about it, took a hop-skip around the internet for articles – anything really – on snake smuggling. Most of the articles are more like case studies, hosted by science websites or organizations who keep tabs on the black market. Others were denouncing the idiocy of consumers who waste money on ‘snake oil.’ Not one petition, not one article attempting to take all these threads of information and piece them together into something informative for the general reader.

Snake smuggling may not be on the same scale as the ivory trade, the effects of this market can (are) even more catastrophic. Unlike ivory, snakes are live, they are sold and transported into foreign countries en masse. This poses a gargantuan danger to local ecosystems these snakes are likely to be introduced to. Between 1999 and 2015, 28 species of reptiles were seized 10 of which were species of snakes . Of those 28, scientists theorize that as many as 12 could settle and thrive in local ecosystem. Establishing a new prey animal, predator, or insect to an alien ecosystem can completely upend the balance of it. A dangerous thing in a time when so many of our indigenous animal populations are suffering mass extinctions. Snakes are generally introduced into these alien environments accidentally, or just irresponsibly. When the handler taking what they need finish with the snake, they often leave them to die. Abandon them to the wilds of wherever the handler lives. While this may kill the snake, there is also the chance the snake could establish itself. The risk grows higher and higher the more snakes are left, because it only takes that one to make it. To mingle and breed with local populations, and not only is there a new predator in the ecosystem, there is now a new strain entirely.

It may seem odd, that the snakes would be sold in mass numbers if their primary marketability lies with their venom. The answer to that is astoundingly simple. A snake handler by the name of Bill Haast measured the amount of time and number of milkings necessary to obtain 1 liter of coral snake venom. It must also be taken into account that not every milking will produce venom. While it wasn’t specified, I would assume he likely only noted successful milkings. So, 3 years and almost 70,000 milkings later, he obtained 1 liter of venom . Not exactly economic if one seeks to make oodles of money. So how do they overcome it? By having many, many of a breed of snake and milking all of them. Not only are the numbers these snakes are held in daunting, to imagine the danger they pose with every handling. Here is something that has the potential to kill a person with one bite, and they are handled every day. If we take into account how other smuggled animals are held, we can easily infer these snakes are held in equal levels of squalor. In a way, the danger posed by selling snake venom works against authorities trying to shut down smuggling rings. The sellers are small, tightly knit, and the network is expansive. Secretive. It makes it hard to find who is selling, and where that individual is obtaining their supply. Another difficulty is proving the venom came from a protected species. Especially in areas where it isn’t necessarily illegal to have a venomous snake, only certain species. However, thanks to a study conducted in 2012, scientists have finally discovered a way to isolate genes in snake venom specific to each venomous species.

So what’s going on with this venom? With the snakes? Facilities that study and synthesize anti-venom only use venom from certified – legal – facilities. They also don’t need a liter of venom at a time. Ironically enough, one of the biggest markets is drugs. There are a lot of problems with that statement, I understand. Why would a person eat venom that could kill them? Although, I would assume it is likely the same reasoning that urges them to inhale methamphetamine. The next problem, is that there is no evidence to say that snake venom will actually get the user ‘high’. In theory, on a biochemical level, the venom could potentially (could and potentially being key) cause some sort of altered state of mind, a ‘high’ even. The chances of that actually happening? Negligible. Still, the demand is high – especially in India  – and has become a popular ‘cocktail’ with liquor, cocaine, heroin, and hallucinogens such as molly. I think, what is the most frightening part of this craze, is that doctors don’t really know what this is, can, or will eventually do to human bodies.

Snakes have a pretty bad rep, especially in Western countries. However, this distaste in them shouldn’t be enough to deter focus on the dangers smuggling presents. If activism is going to be effective, it needs to be less biased toward the “cute and fuzzy”, and look to address the problems with as little bias as possible.


  1. Wildlife Command Crazy Prices on the Black Market; Snake Venom Sells at $215,000 Per Liter
    Niyi Aderibigbe. The Nerve. Dec 12, 2015.
  2. Snake Venom for Sale. Global Black Market Information – Havoscope
  4. The Forensics of Snake Venom
    Douglas M. Main. New York Times – Green. February 10, 2012.
  5. Species Identification from Dried Snake Venom
    Chandra S. Singh M.Sc., Ajay Gaur Ph.D., Ara Sreenivas M.Sc., Lalji Singh Ph.D. January 23, 2012.
  1. Snake Black Market Poses Risk to Humans and Wildlife
    Science News. Science Daily. November 17, 2016.
  2. Breakfast With Cobra Venom
    Shiv Pujan Jha. Daily News & Analysis India. February 20, 2014
  3. Snake Oil Merchants
    Janaki Lenin. The Hindu. November 2, 2012 & June 22, 2016.
  4. Snakes Alive, the Venomous Vino that Comes with Added Bite
    Daily Mail Reporter. Daily Mail. January 20, 2011.