animal kingdom

Sting in the tale: Why this image of a Rs 245 crore snake venom bust has many problems

Reports claiming illicit snake venom trade worth crores do a disservice to Indian snakes.

You would be forgiven for thinking Indian snakes have udders instead of fangs – no other country in the world seizes as much illegal snake venom as India. In yet another case last week, forest officials claimed they had arrested four men for smuggling contraband venom worth £30 million (Rs 245 crore) in Jalpaiguri, West Bengal.

How credible is this report? Is there really a booming, illicit business in snake venom? Who uses it? Is it really worth so much money?

Defanging myths

A common, widespread venomous snake that produces copious amounts of venom is the spectacled cobra. Its venom sells for $150 (Rs 10,000) per gram on the international market. King cobras produce even more venom, and it is priced at only $120 a gram.

Officials claimed that the haul in Jalpaiguri was worth a fantastic Rs 245 crore. The Telegraph made a more conservative estimate at Rs 175 crore. The report was accompanied by an image of the seized goods – nearly ten kilograms of venom, in five fancy bullet-proof jars (Why on earth does venom need to be in bullet-proof containers?). The officials want us to believe a gram of this spurious venom is worth Rs 175,000, but no venom from an Indian snake is this expensive. With Rs. 175 crores, someone interested in procuring snake venom could buy more than 175 kilogram of venom legally.

Since smugglers cannot guarantee the authenticity of their product, the legal availability of venom ought to drive the price way down.

For decades, the authorities have claimed that the venom was sold at rave parties and to drug addicts. Apparently, people consuming this lethal substance in its pill form become euphoric. In fact, venom must be injected into the blood stream for it to have an effect. If you swallow it, stomach acids destroy the venom, and you will experience nothing, as long as you have no ulcers.

“It is possible to get a high from venom injected into your body,” said Bryan Grieg Fry, head of the Venom Evolutionary Laboratory at the University of Queensland in Australia. “I had that feeling when I was bitten by a death adder. But that’s about when your lungs fail. Sadly, the people on all sides of this farce have it all wrong. Any cobra venom delivered the way they are saying it is would have no effect.”

Cocaine is one of many snake venom lookalikes, and dealers can claim whatever they are peddling is actually venom, in order to mark the price up nearly 20 times. Desperate drug abusers in search of the next high might even swallow the bait – but who knows what these guys sell?

“The police have a convenient target for cheap publicity,” said Fry. “The sellers are making money off gullible users who are getting high on the solvents in there, not any venom.”

Snakes did not evolve venom to let their prey enjoy a few happy hours before turning into snake food. They custom-produce venom, a lethal combination of enzymes and toxins, to kill specific prey within seconds. Cobra venom attacks the nervous system, leading to paralysis. Viper venom damages tissue and causes blood to flow freely.

Of the nearly one million people bitten by snakes every year in India, nearly 45,000 victims lose their lives. Not one of these patients has ever reported getting high when bitten by a snake – the experience appears to be invariably traumatising. But despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, authorities continue to repeat the ridiculous myth that venom gives people a high.

Made in France?

In the Jalpaiguri case, officials have said that the venom was for medicinal purposes and the manufacture of anti-venom. Except anti-venom manufacturers don’t need kilograms of venom to produce anti-venom. Nor is anti-venom ever made of any random venom, it is necessary to know which species of snake the venom belongs to.

The price of anti-venom is under Rs 1,000 a vial. If manufacturers had to buy raw material at Rs 1,75,000 a gram, they could not afford to sell anti-venom at throwaway prices.

Usually, venom used for medicinal purposes, or to make anti-venom, is bought from known suppliers who can guarantee the product. One such organisation is the Irula Snake Catchers’ Cooperative, that took nearly 35 years and 35,000 cobras to produce 10 kilograms of cobra venom.

If not for anti-venom, what else could this so-called venom be used for? The Telegraph claimed the loot may have been destined for the manufacture of traditional Chinese medicine, presumably in China.

But why would the Chinese, who do a roaring business in snake meat and blood, procure venom that came through Bangladesh and India? After all, Chinese cobra venom is cheaper, selling at Rs 4,500 a gram. Even if the Chinese needed venom in large quantities, they could easily import it directly from its source.

To add intrigue to the story, officials of the Forest Department claimed that the venom originally came from France. For evidence, they relied on the sticker of a purported French venom supplier on the seized jars.

In a similar case last year, officials had found "Made in France" labels on jars of venom seized from the border of Bhutan. But how reliable is a label stuck to a bottle? Don't salesmen frequently claim their wares are from exotic locales, to impress prospective buyers?

Typically, venom suppliers sell venom for pharmaceutical use, in quantities that vary between 10 milligrams and 10 grams. The venom is securely packaged in small pharmaceutical vials, not ornate “bullet-proof” jars.

The powder in the jars could be anything from dandruff to bleaching powder – the production of 10 kilograms of venom takes a large operation, and no such clandestine set-up has come to light in Europe or India.

Assuming there was such a facility in France, and the venom did come from there, it is not a crime to have venom in one’s possession in India. The Indian Wildlife Protection Act does not extend jurisdiction to non-Indian species, said Jose Louies, the Head of Enforcement and Law, at the Wildlife Trust of India.

Uncoiling the truth

The law enforcement authorities of India do a great disservice to snakes, by quoting astronomical prices for venom: they give the impression that there is a killing to be made off snake venom.

Anyone out to make some quick money, with a source for snake venom, might adulterate it with something else to make up the bulk. In two such cases, the substance tested appeared to have cobra venom. “One case was detected in Cochin Airport, and the other in Kasaragode district,” said Avinash Basker, Head of the Legal Programme, Wildlife Protection Society of India. “Both convictions occurred in 2013.”

Although such news reports make good copy – pots of money, exotic substances, bullet-proof jars, officers with automatic weapons, and so-called criminals wearing pillow cases notwithstanding – in court, these cases unravel fairly quickly.

“First, the prosecution has to establish that the seized material is snake venom or derivatives from snake venom,” said Louies.

Then it must prove which species of Indian snake was milked to produce this venom. Only then, can the case make it through the court.

Selling fake wildlife products is not a new phenomenon. The sale of cow hides painted with tiger stripes, has been going on for a long time. “There is no provision of the WLPA [wildife act] that applies to cow skins,” said Basker.

“The WLPA only applies to the species and their derivatives listed in its schedules".

Similarly, a suspect selling some white powder that he claims is snake venom, cannot be prosecuted under wildlife laws, but the police do file charges of cheating in such cases, said Tito Joseph, Programme Manager, Wildlife Protection Society of India.

If Indian law enforcement is really serious about curbing this illicit business, it should not put an unrealistic value on untested substances said to come from wild species. For the sake of its own credibility, it should stop issuing press releases before testing these substances. If officials waited for the test results, they would find nothing to crow about.

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