Snakes Face Cruelty and Extinction

by Matt Ellerbeck

Snakes have proved that they are one of time’s most successful and resilient survivors. They have been on the Earth for well over 100 million years. They have managed to survive throughout the ages, while countless other species have disappeared around them.

Today however, snakes are very much in trouble. Hundreds of snake species are now in need of conservation if they are to survive. Currently, over 450 snake species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. 

For some snakes it is already too late, as several species have already gone extinct, completely exterminated by the hands of man. Many more snake species are being pushed to the very brink of extinction.

For many people, the term endangered species conjures up images of exotic animals far from home. However, the decline in snake populations can be seen around the globe. Many of India’s native snake species are declining, with some considered threatened or endangered. This includes the Indian Python (Python molurus) and King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah).

The biggest issue affecting snakes today is the loss of their natural habitat. Many areas that were once suitable for snakes to live have now been destroyed. Habitats of all kinds are being lost at an alarming rate. Wetlands are drained, forests are cut down, and waterfronts are developed. Snakes are literally losing their homes and they are losing them rapidly.

Remaining natural habitats are often degraded and fragmented. Fragmentation occurs when healthy areas of habitat are isolated from one another. Snake populations are affected since gene flow between populations is prevented. Habitat fragmentation is also harmful because it often eliminates crucial requirements of the area which are critical to the survival of snake populations. Such areas include spaces that can be utilized for thermoregulation, prey capture, mating, and hibernation. Without such habitat requirements populations will dwindle. Habitat complexity is also important as it offers shelter to snakes from both predators and human persecution. Another important feature within snake habitats are gestation sites. These are areas where gravid females congregate to easily access shelter and places to aid thermoregulation. Snakes will often use the same sites year after year, so the loss of such areas in the form of habitat destruction can negatively affect the whole population and its reproductive output.

Degradation occurs when the natural habitat has been altered and degraded to such a degree that it is unlikely that any remaining snake species would be able to survive. Contaminants and sewage run off from developmental construction and human settlement also cause harm to snakes and their increasingly degraded habitats. Pesticides, oils, chemicals, and industrial pollution contaminate the habitats of snakes and their local prey. When the snakes eat contaminated prey, they may become poisoned and die.

Habitats are often isolated and cut off from one another by the roads and highways that now run through them. Countless numbers of snakes are killed on roads and highways every year. In many cases, people will purposely swerve to run over and kill snakes. Snakes are attracted to roads because the sun baked surface provides an opportunity to absorb heat.

Habitat loss also puts snakes in greater danger of encounters with humans. Once their natural habitat has been destroyed, snakes are forced (by no fault of their own) into urbanized environments. Here they are likely to be killed by fearful humans, or those who deem them as pests. Snakes are often the victims of malicious and deliberate killings by fearful people. According to Seburn and Seburn (2000) snakes are feared and persecuted by humans more than any other group of animals and humans are the greatest threat to most species of snakes.

The issues that plague snakes are not just exclusive to species found in the wild. Every year literally millions of snakes are unwillingly forced into captive settings. Here they are subjected to many forms of abuse and cruelty, while others are exploited like lifeless commodities for monetary gain.

Every year snakes, including rare and endangered ones, also suffer from being harvested from the wild at a staggering rate. Snakes are collected for the pet trade, food markets, their skins, or to be used in traditional medicines. The extensive exploitation of snakes is a tremendous problem that populations simply cannot sustain. National Geographic reports that more then 24 million reptile parts were exported from Southeast Asia alone between 2000 and 2007. Reptile skins are used for handbags, belts, shoes and clothes.

Animal welfare and cruelty groups have reported that every year millions of snakes are impaled on hooks or nailed to trees by their heads and skinned alive. Large snakes like pythons have hoses inserted into their mouths and are pumped full of water to loosen their skin so that it will cut away more easily. The animals’ peeled, writhing bodies are then discarded, and it can take days before the animals die from the effects of shock and dehydration.

The desecration and ill-treatment that snakes endure as a result of trades that harvest and exploit them is truly horrifying. For example, many snakes suffer intensely as they are painfully skinned alive for their skins, while others die excruciatingly as they are slowly suffocated.

Snakes are often used as ‘props’ or gimmicks in movies and television shows. Here they may be subjected to any form of misuse and agony. The portrayal of snakes in the media is also detrimental to these animals. Snakes are often portrayed as aggressive and malicious creatures. This reputation only promotes a fear of these animals, and this fear helps fuel unjust persecution of snakes.

Snake charmers and “side show” handlers also exploit snakes for monetary gain. The snakes that are used in such acts are often kidnapped from their natural habitats. Many snake charmers and snake handlers do not give their animals the proper care they need to remain healthy. In fact most handlers subject their snakes to terribly cruel and inhumane conditions and inflict horrendous acts of abuse upon them. Such abuse includes having the snake’s venom ducts punctured with hot needles. This incapacitates the animal’s ability to deliver venom. The handlers will also pull out the snake’s fangs or sew their mouths shut as a way of avoiding bites. These actions cause the snakes extreme pain and suffering. It also leads to premature death. This means new snakes will have to be obtained to be used in the side-shows and these replacement snakes will be subjected to the same agonizing cruelty.

A massive number of snakes are being lost each year through the combination of the many threats mentioned above. This unnatural decline in snake populations cannot rebound on its own. This is why the conservation of many snake species is required. Without assistance, many snake species simply cannot continue to survive the many hazards we have created for them.

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