For-Profit Cobra Breeding May Aid Wild Populations

Yasunori Matsuo
Kyodo News
August 6, 2002
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In economically booming China, the rising demand for cobra meat and traditional medicines made from cobras has had a devastating impact on the deadly snakes' population in neighboring Vietnam.

But a northern Vietnamese village is attempting to reverse the trend, both to earn money from the lucrative cross-border trade and to preserve the threatened snake in its natural habitat.

Vinh Son Commune in the northern province of Vinh Phuc, near Hanoi, has been breeding and raising cobras in recent years. Last year the commune produced about 50 tons of cobras, mostly exported to China.

The commune's success at captive breeding is being viewed in some quarters as a boost for environment conservation, especially as the breeders hope to release some of the cobras into the wild.

Vietnam's biologists say the declining population of cobras in the wild threatens to upset the ecological balance. As more and more wild cobras are captured illegally, paddies in many parts of the country are being invaded by rapidly growing armies of rats.

Last August, Vu Van Lich, a 59-year-old resident of the commune, organized a group of a dozen snake farmers to found the Vinh Thanh Snake Breeding Cooperative with an initial working capital of 500 million dong (U.S. $31,250).

Cobras in northern Vietnam generally lay eggs only in May and June. Successfully incubated eggs hatch about two months later.

Last summer, the cooperative hired a specialist to manage the cooperative's breeding program. As a result, about 90 percent of the eggs hatched, producing 20,000 snakes.

The next major hurdle for cobra farmers in the north was husbanding the newborns, which weigh 150 to 300 grams (5 to 10 ounces), through the chilly winter months. Among those weighing less than 500 grams (one pound), only 20 percent to 30 percent generally survive the cold.

To get around that problem, Lich decided to winter the newborns in southern Vietnam, where the weather is much warmer.

In April and May of this year, tens of thousands of juveniles weighing 500 to 700 grams (one to 1.5 pounds) each were returned from the south and distributed to the cooperative's members to be raised to adulthood.

Lich said this year's bred cobras will be sold for about 270,000 dong (about $17) per kilogram once they grow in the autumn into adults weighing 2 to 2.5 kilograms (4.4 to 5.5 pounds) each.

Because the cooperative is still in its formative stages, it still needs to implement "effective management" methods to enable it to weather various business difficulties, including price fluctuations, Lich said.

However, local authorities have lauded the cooperative's initiative in breeding the protected snakes and vowed to encourage other communes to establish similar cooperatives.

"In the future we would like to release cobras bred by our cooperative into the wild," Lich said. He has asked environmental officials to allow cobras bred at the Vinh Son Commune to be released in Tam Dao National Park, a popular summer resort 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of Hanoi. Authorities have not yet responded to the request.

Vietnam, with its own wildlife under siege, has gained a degree of notoriety among environmentalists as both a major market and a transit country for animals killed in increasing numbers in neighboring Laos and Cambodia.

Conservation officials face an uphill battle in attempting to suppress trade in illegal wildlife in Vietnam, where poachers vastly outnumber forest rangers. Trade in wild cobras is widely expected to continue because specimens caught in the wild tend to weigh about twice as much as those bred in captivity and can command prices of 400,000 to 500,000 dong (U.S. $25 to $30) per kilogram.

Copyright 2002 Kyodo News

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