"You've never seen anything like it," Rom said about the National Reptile Breeders' Expo. And, he was right!
What would the National Reptile Breeders' Expo look like? I struggled hard to imagine what kind of people would buy and sell reptiles. May be ‘weird people' — pot-smoking, long-haired, and elaborately-tattooed dudes who drove Harley Davidsons. Rom, who had been to one several years ago, shook his head: “You've never seen anything like it.” And, he was right!
On an August Saturday balmy morning in 2005, as we walked past the long queue, waiting to get inside the convention centre in Daytona, Florida, I was amazed that ‘straight people' outnumbered the freaks. There were elderly people, young couples, teenagers, little kids. You'd think they were going to the supermarket!
The previous year, I had published a book called “Snakes of India: The Field Guide” by Rom and Ashok Captain, and I hoped to sell a lot of copies at the expo. As we wheeled cartons of boxes into the building, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents checked to see if I had any live creatures. If I had, I'd have to show a licence to sell them.
Strangely, my table was in the venomous reptiles section where adjacent tables were piled high with gila monsters, black Pakistani cobras, albino rattlers, mambas, tarantulas and scorpions, all alive. Everyone who visited this section had to show proof of their adulthood, just as you would on entering a bar. When sales were slow, I gawked at people examining venomous creatures in plastic see-through containers. Flanking me were Charles, an on duty Florida State Fire Rescue officer to handle emergencies and our German buddy Andreas Gumprecht, who was selling his gorgeous book “Asian pit vipers”.
At lunch, Rom took my place at the table while I wandered around the 600-odd stalls. There were the occasional jewellery and book stalls, but most of the floor space was taken up by live animals. There were womas from Australia, brilliant colour morphs of geckos and crazily-patterned ball pythons from Africa, orange garter snakes, bearded dragons, various tortoises: more reptiles than I had seen in any zoo anywhere in the world!
On the second afternoon, Charles walked excitedly over from across the room, he had just bought a baby king cobra for $ 350. He already had a pair of adults at home. “Do you have space for another one?” I asked. “Not yet. I'll figure it out eventually,” he replied, unfazed by his new commitment. I was hung up on the large South American tarantulas, and if I lived in the U.S., I'd have bought several without thinking twice.
I had mixed feelings about this whole enterprise. It is no accident that Florida has an increasing problem of foreign animals colonising its wetlands, including large reptiles such as Burmese pythons and Nile monitor lizards. Irresponsible owners had dumped unwanted pets that had outgrown their interests and apartments into the closest wild habitat. Andreas countered that it was keeping snakes as a child that honed his skill as a snake breeder. He kept 300 snakes of 50 species, so many that he had to rent a flat just for his creatures! And today he is one of the world's experts on Asian pit vipers.
In 2008, we were back at the expo to raise money for gharial conservation. The expo was now restricted to captive-bred, non-venomous animals. The quiet-natured and beautiful ball pythons had taken over; no other species was sold in as many numbers.
By the end of the weekend, thanks to an enthusiastic group of associates, we had raised close to $ 25,000 for gharial conservation from the sale of t-shirts, books, items donated by individuals, zoos and organisations. The reptile fanciers' commitment for the gharial in far-off India was touching. I wondered if we could raise this kind of money for reptile conservation (do I hear an “ugh”?) here, in middle-class India. Sadly, not a chance.
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