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Updated: November 3, 2012 11:31 IST
My Husband And Other Animals

Snake oil merchants

JANAKI LENIN
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Victim of hype A red sand boa. Photo: Janaki Lenin
Victim of hype A red sand boa. Photo: Janaki Lenin

If the police were to be believed, the price of a litre of king cobra venom was Rs. 40 lakh in 2008. By July 2012, it had skyrocketed to Rs. 2.7 crore.

Most consignments of confiscated venom were in liquid form, and therefore not even worth a paisa. That’s because like any other bodily fluid, venom starts rotting as soon as it leaves the snake’s body. It has to be instantly frozen or freeze-dried to a powder.

Besides, it takes hundreds of king cobras to produce a litre of venom. It’s impossible for a clandestine backyard operation to amass such a quantity. But these little details didn’t prevent the police from making wild claims about the value of venom.

One State Forest Department reportedly had a batch tested; it was starch. For every gullible idiot willing to pay a fortune, there are a score of charlatans willing to sell anything they can pass off as venom.

Researchers and anti-venom manufacturers buy venom from known sources only, and they need tiny quantities, not litres of the stuff. So clearly the black market venom wasn’t intended for any legitimate use.

Last year, the police claimed that snake venom was mixed with narcotics for “an extra kick”. More than 20 years ago, we heard rumours of addas in Calcutta where addicts got cobras to bite their tongues. When we enquired in that city, we were told to look in Bombay; when we asked there, it was somewhere else. The story even made it internationally to The National Enquirer. To Rom’s chagrin, a photograph of him milking a cobra was the accompanying illustration.

Earlier this year, an official from the Narcotics Control Bureau added another twist to the story. He said revellers at rave parties add a pinch of dry cobra venom to their drinks “to enhance sensation and boost energy” so they can dance for longer hours. Firstly, snakes evolved venom to kill their prey quickly, not to provide an energy jolt so rats can run circles around them. Secondly, venom is neutralised by our digestive juices. Only if rave partygoers had ulcers in their mouths or guts, would venom find its way into the bloodstream and have an effect on their bodies. Besides, none of the estimated million people who get bitten by snakes annually report any sense of well-being, grandiosity, happiness, or heightened arousal as claimed. If they did, our snakebite problem would have ballooned to a pandemic by now. Venom addiction is a stupid but enduring urban myth.

It’s not just snake venom that seems to have a thriving underground market. A couple of years ago, press reports claimed red sand boas were being illegally traded for lakhs of rupees each. Soon, there were suppliers from every southern State eagerly looking for buyers. Villagers who knew of our interest in snakes sought our help in making their fortunes.

We can’t fathom who would be interested in a lethargic, uncharismatic species at such high prices and why. The authorities also seem clueless, speculating on a wide range of options – aphrodisiacs, get-rich talismans, food, medicine, and black magic.

Unfortunately, in this case, these snakes are taken from the wild, and held in captivity until the poachers can find buyers. Since some news reports claim the snakes are sold by weight, the reptiles are frequently force-fed metal ball bearings, say activists. Just when I think I’ve heard it all, other reports make the fantastic claim that these burrowing snakes accumulate rare, invaluable iridium in their scales. Why don’t earthworms?

The illegal trade in wildlife and purported wildlife products is driven in no small measure by the authorities quoting fantastic prices. Finally in September, the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau issued a directive to enforcement agencies and the media asking them not to mention a monetary value for wildlife products.

If the Bureau had also issued a directive against promoting myths and speculations about wildlife markets, these snake oil merchants will be run out of business.

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