How the Overharvesting of Poisonous Sea Snakes Could Help Spell Doom for the Rhino

by Owen James Burke

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Photos via Conservation Magazine/Shutterstock

A five-year study led by Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology researcher Nguyen Van Cao recently published in the journal Conservation Biology, concludes that the Vietnamese coast along the Gulf of Thailand is home to the single-most exploitive — and lethal — harvest of marine reptiles in the world, which not only poses a threat to sea snake populations (or those bitten while harvesting), but the severely endangered rhino, too, incidentally. Apart from a slew of other believed values in traditional Chinese medicine, powdered rhino horn is also thought to be the only antidote to the lethal venom produced by the sea snakes which, being such a hot commodity, are harvested at over 80 tons per year. Fishermen risk their lives capturing and handling these snakes, and many believe that if they’re to have any hopes of surviving the occasional but inevitable mishap, the rhino horn is the only remedy, and a necessary piece of inventory to keep aboard, a simple matter of life or death.

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Photo via Opeconomica

Vietnamese fishermen generally subsist off squid, but in off months or times of poor catch, they turn to the sea snake, which despite being less numerous, are drastically more lucrative. While squid sells for between $7 and $20 per pound (depending on quality, supply and demand), sea snakes can sell for up to $40 per pound.

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Photo: Zoltan Takacs

The snakes are also used in traditional Chinese medicine; their blood and organs are mixed into alcoholic concoctions (as is the dust of rhino horns) for virility and overall health. I’ve sampled the cocktail on occasion, but I can’t say I’d speak either way in favor or against the validity of their use. I will say that it’s absolutely tasteless, or mild at best, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed any of the array of serpentine byproducts had I not seen them harvested and poured into my glass. In general, Chinese medicine has worked wonders for me, but at what price do the continuation of ancient practices like these come? Will they bring the rhinoceros to extinction? The sea snake too, a species which our species still only knows precious little about, and which scientists ponder over whether or not it’s even safe to eat in the first place?

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Photo: Zoltan Takacs

Read more at the University of Washington’s Conservation Magazine and the online journal Conservation Biology, and watch a NatGeo video on the recent research — OJB

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