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Thursday
Mar042010

Rat snakes on a slippery slope

Oriental Rat Snakes are threatened in Java because government-set quotas are not adherred to by traders Click photo to enlarge © Mark Auliya/TRAFFIC Southeast Asia   Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 4 March 2010—Government-set quotas in Indonesia are being widely-flouted, leading to over-harvesting and illegal trade in Oriental Rat Snakes from Java, the Indonesian island where the species is largely sourced a new TRAFFIC study has found.

In demand for its skin in the fashion industry and for the exotic meat and traditional medicine trades, the Oriental Rat Snake has been commercially harvested since the 1970s.

Concern over the effects of trade, particularly in Indonesia, surfaced as far back as the 1980s, leading to the introduction of several steps to control and manage collection.

But none of the management proposals put forward by the Indonesian government to regulate trade in the snakes is fully operational or effective, the Conservation Status and Impacts of Trade on the Oriental Rat Snake Ptyas mucosa in Java, Indonesia (PDF, 1.9 MB) report found.

Large numbers of the snakes are harvested and traded outside of existing regulations, and no marking of skins takes place, making it impossible to track them through the trade chain to point of export.

TRAFFIC interviewed 17 Oriental Rat Snake traders in Java. Just three of them were aware of a government-set quota on the number of specimens that can be traded legally each year. Several considered the species had become less common in recent years and that volumes in trade are only being maintained through increased collection effort; this is backed up by a trend for male snakes in trade becoming smaller.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, concern over large discrepancies—of up to 50-fold—between the number of rat snakes reported as exported by Indonesia and the number imported as from Indonesia, led to an international trade suspension in 1993.

This was lifted in 2005 and an annual harvest quota of 100,000 specimens established. Yet one of the biggest traders in Central Java told TRAFFIC researchers in 2007 that he alone could accumulate 50,000–100,000 specimens per year.

TRAFFIC's report into the Oriental Rat Snake trade in Java is available as a PDF downloaded The 12-year trade suspension appears to have triggered the development of a large, and now well established illegal trade in meat and gall bladders.

During the ban, an estimated 30 to 60 tonnes of meat along with 50,000 to 100,000 skins and gall bladders were illegally exported each year, some supposedly from stockpiles.

Three ports in Java currently ship frozen rat snake meat to China and Taiwan; under Indonesian law, only the harvest of live specimens and skins of the Oriental Rat Snake is permitted.

In August 2007, Indonesian management authorities and TRAFFIC recommended studies be carried out to estimate rat snake population sizes accurately, with mapping of harvest areas and tougher action to curb illegal trade.

“Indonesian scientists need to demonstrate what levels of sustainable off-take are possible, and these need to be adhered to if we are not to see rat snake numbers go into freefall,” said Chris Shepherd, Programme Office with TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

TRAFFIC’s latest report recommends a review of the merits and feasibility of controlling snake products in demand and which products are allowed for export. It also suggests regulating the trade in by-products such as meat within the same management system as the skin trade to ensure sustainability, and increasing enforcement actions on illegal export to help conservation of snake populations.

“Despite their name, rat snakes, predominantly eat amphibians, but remove too many snakes and you could easily upset the balance of nature with unknown impacts on the wider environment,” warned Shepherd.

More information
Elizabeth John, Senior Communications Officer, TRAFFIC Southeast Asia, Tel: +603 7880 3940, Email: jlizzjohn@yahoo.com

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