Year of the Snake

This week, Chinese New Year celebrations mark the beginning of the Year of the Snake and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is celebrating snakes and their importance for healthy habitats and livelihoods.

Leptophis mexicanus

Snakes are found in every continent except Antarctica and in almost every habitat including the sea and even the Himalayan Mountains. Their presence is important for healthy ecosystems as they are predators as well as prey for other species. Many species feed on rodents and other pest animals and can be an important source of pest control in many tropical countries. Snake venom is also used for medicinal purposes in the prevention and treatment of heart attacks, while the sale of snake skins for use in the fashion industry can be an important source of income for some people. Snakes are also increasingly popular pets and the international pet trade provides another source of income for many communities in Asian countries.

There are nearly 3,500 described species of snake and of the 1,518 listed on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, 185 are listed as threatened. These include iconic species such as the King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah), the world’s largest venomous snake, listed as Vulnerable as a result of combined pressures from deforestation and intense harvesting for traditional medicine, meat and skins. These activities are also major threats for many other species of snake, including a number whose ranges are restricted by living on small islands, such as three Critically Endangered species, Boo-Liat's Kukri Snake (Oligodon booliati), Pulau Tioman Ground Snake (Gongylosoma mukutense) and Calamaria ingeri, all of which are confined to less than 100 km2 of intact forest on the Malaysian resort island Pulau Tioman.

Over 200 species of snakes are found in China. Of the 12 species included so far on the IUCN Red List in threatened categories, one is the Mangshan Viper (Protobothrops mangshanensis), listed as Endangered, which has suffered severe population decline as a result of habitat loss and overexploitation led by demand in the international pet trade. A recent study estimated that the surviving population may contain as few as 462 individuals and concluded that current levels of protection are inadequate to ensure its survival.

Unfortunately, snakes are still unpopular creatures in many communities and can be treated unfavorably. In tropical Asia, snake species do not benefit from any strict conservation measures and no protected areas have been established that specifically protect habitats of rare or threatened snakes. Most species in this region are utilized on a national or international level but as many of these are not covered by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, it is difficult to attract funds needed to carry out detailed studies determining the impacts of this exploitation on these species.

IUCN is supporting snake conservation through its network of experts in three snake-focused IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Specialist Groups, including the IUCN SSC Boa and Python Specialist Group, IUCN SSC Sea Snake Specialist Group and the IUCN SSC Viper Specialist Group.

The IUCN Boa and Python Specialist Group have contributed to the report, “Trade in Southeast Asian Python Skins” led by the International Trade Centre and TRAFFIC which identified that illegal trade in python skins is occurring due to poor regulation or a lack of transparency throughout the trade chain. The trade provides an income that can improve the livelihoods of communities throughout Southeast Asia but better monitoring is recommended to ensure future sustainability and habitat conservation.

Through The Orianne Society, the IUCN SSC Viper Specialist Group is involved with the conservation of a number of species in the USA and South America using their “Science fuelled boots on the ground conservation” approach which includes projects for the Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus), the largest rattlesnake in the world. They are also improving people’s attitudes to snakes by encouraging the change of rattlesnake roundup events into wildlife festivals.

During the Chinese Year of the Snake, the IUCN SSC snake Specialist Groups will continue their efforts to increase awareness of the importance of snakes and work with governments, organizations and communities to continue current conservation projects and develop more on the ground action where it is needed. IUCN is also in the process of undertaking a global assessment of reptiles to evaluate the conservation status of all the world’s snakes and other reptiles for inclusion on the IUCN Red List, an effort supported by a dedicated Snake and Lizard Red List Authority.

For more information please contact:
Camellia Williams, IUCN Species Programme Communications, IUCN, t +41 22 999 0154, e [email protected]

Work area: 
Red List
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