Unfortunately Ashmore Reef had crossed itself off the list before I was ever able to make it there. It was once the most biodiverse hotspot for Hydrophiine (true) sea snakes on earth, boasting 17 species including at least three small range endemics. The snakes at Ashmore declined over a course of 30 years. By 1995 populations were crashing and by 2012, there was not a single snake to be found. Scientists still do not know why the snakes vanished from Ashmore, a marine reserve since 1983. The causes are likely to remain a mystery. Taking Ashmore off my “not bucketing bucket list” was a somber moment. In Tonlé Sap, deforestation, overfishing, poor law enforcement, and illegal leather exporting are on the rise. It is on a fast track to follow Ashmore as yet another once great herp stronghold. stopped months ago as the season had ended. However, I soon learned that in Cambodia, laws are hardly enforced, and it is easy to find ways around them. In this case, the fisherman had simply taken to pushing the gill nets deeper into the mangrove forests and only checking them at night.
We were in Cambodia in October, so in theory the harvesting of snakes should have
Unfortunately Ashmore Reef had crossed itself off the list before I was ever able to make it there. It was once the most biodiverse hotspot for Hydrophiine (true) sea snakes on earth, boasting 17 species including at least three small range endemics. The snakes at Ashmore declined over a course of 30 years. By 1995 populations were crashing and by 2012, there was not a single snake to be found. Scientists still do not know why the snakes vanished from Ashmore, a marine reserve since 1983. The causes are likely to remain a mystery. Taking Ashmore off my “not bucketing bucket list” was a somber moment. In Tonlé Sap, deforestation, overfishing, poor law enforcement, and
illegal leather exporting are on the rise. It is on a fast track to follow Ashmore
as yet another once great herp stronghold.
stopped months ago as the season had ended. However, I soon learned that in
Cambodia, laws are hardly enforced, and it is easy to find ways around them.
In this case, the fisherman had simply taken to pushing the gill nets deeper into
the mangrove forests and only checking them at night.
The factor of human consumption was everywhere, yet this was not the main use of the harvested snakes. The primary use for these snakes was for food on crocodile farms.
The Siamese Crocodile (Crocodylus siamensis) is used in Cambodia for both food and leather; however the species is endangered which has made the capture of them both illegal and likely more relevant, out right difficult. As a result, floating crocodile farms have popped up everywhere. The locals are allowed to farm the crocodiles, and they feed them primarily on water snakes. Therefore, all non-food and non-leather grade snakes that are harvested become crocodile food. Ironically the breeding of one endangered species may soon lead to several more joining the Siamese Crocodile on that list.
Written By Myke Clarkson
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We checked the nets looking for entangled snakes. Frequently, the snakes that were not entangled in the nets would eventually surface for air. This task involved a lot of waiting, something I normally do not excel at, but in this situation the wait was worth it.
Those snakes that we managed to rescue from the nets were moved release back into the lake-- a bit further from the village this time, but still in mangroves. It was a bittersweet release though, as we knew it is likely that they would eventually be recaptured.
The evidence of the catch was present in nearly every wet market in the form of dead snakes for sale with prices ranging from $0.50 to $1.50 per pound. In these piles of freshly killed snakes I was able to identify Rainbow Mud Snake (Enhydris enhydris), Longtailed Mud Snake (Enhydris longicauda), Jack’s Water Snake (Homalopsis mereljcoxi), Bocourt's Water Snake (Subsessor bocourti), and Checkered Keelback (Xenochrophis piscator). Notably absent in the market place, but known to be harvested from the lake were Red-Tailed Pipe Snake (Cylindrophis ruffus), Plumbeous Water Snake (Hypsiscopus plumbea), and Tentacled Snake (Erpeton tentaculatum).
All of these pressures, combined with other factors like rampant pollution due to the lack of an effective nationwide trash service, will over time, likely spell doom for the lakes inhabitants. Tonlé Sap is a quickly fading hotspot for the Homalopsidae, one that I fear will not be the same the next time I visit.
When Rebecca and I first arrived at the lake, we kept our expectations reasonably low. Our strategy was simple, to find the local fisherman and hire them to take us around the mangroves where the nets are. Snake mortality in the gill nets is very high, though the smaller snakes seemed to manage their way around and through them to some degree. Either that or the dead ones had already been harvested earlier and fed to the crocodiles. Dead snakes used for crocodile food sell for $0.25 a pound. The larger specimens to be used as skins for illegal export go for $1.50 a pound. Partially due to that higher price, the larger specimens are now rare.
HCI's Myke Clarkson explores Cambodia's Tonle Sap in search of its declining population of fully aquatic snakes.
Considering how common and abundant the other species were in the markets while we were there, one has to wonder if the absence of these other species is due to over harvest or just seasonal variance. Some estimates put the annual harvest of snakes from the lake around 4 million individuals per year, so either reason is plausible.
As if this situation wasn’t bad enough, many of the snakeskin drums we saw were made from Homalopsis mereljcoxi, Subsessorbocourti and even Burmese Python (Python bivittatus) skins. The “cobras” in the supposedly illegal snake wine (which was for sale everywhere you turned) were also predominantly Homalopsidae or colubrids like Xenochrophis with toothpicks spreading their throats to make them appear more Naja like.
Most tourists travel to Cambodia to see the massive temples, bustling markets, and small villages that are still largely un-westernized when compared to the neighboring countries of Thailand and Vietnam. While these sites were all stops on the vacation itinerary for my wife Rebecca and I, Tonlé Sap was the inspiration for the trip.
About a decade ago a documentary on fishermen, who live on Tonlé Sap’s floating villages captivated me. But it wasn’t their “Water World” like life style that had captured my curiosity, it was their catch. Among the fish, eels and other palatable and unpalatable fare were Mud Snakes (Homalopsidae), by the buckets. This place was THE mecca for Mud Snakes, and so Tonlé Sap was added to my list of must visit places, along with sites like Ashmore Reef, in Australia, another aquatic snake mecca. (I would call it a bucket list, but in the context of herping I think that might send the wrong impression).
Species in our target family (Homalopsidae) that we encountered during this excursion included Enhydris enhydris, Enhydris longicauda, Homalopsis mereljcoxi, and a rather large Subsessor bocourti along with a smaller specimen of S. bocourti. We also found a Python bivittatus and a species of water skink we were not able to identify. The Burmese Python came as a surprise to us, though I don’t know why. Many of the kids of the village have little ones as pets, which I am sure get sold off when they get some size on them. Additionally, it was winter and they are known to be out basking this time of year. Still, seeing one sitting in a tree above a mangrove was something I was not expecting.
(Click the photos below for ID and larger image)
As the sun began to get lower it was time for us to make the long ride back into town. It was our hope that we might be able to instill in the locals a greater appreciation for these species through meeting and working with us, though I suspect that is unlikely. It was on the trip back that we came across a young girl and her brother on their boat. It was at that time it occurred to us how much of a challenge it would be to change the harvest practices to help preserve these species. For the people living in this unique setting, this is all they know.
Land is a foreign concept to them; they have been living off the bounty of the lake for generations, and as their population has grown, populations of all the animals in the area have dropped dramatically. This is the life they know. Without education on the importance of these species and their habitat, real enforcement of the existing harvesting laws, controls on pollution, and alternate forms of income for these people, the eventual depletion of life on this lake won’t just spell demise for the snakes, but also for this culture that has evolved to depend on them.