The snakes are smuggled for use in traditional medicine as well as in black magic practices, finds new report
Over the course of six years, between January 2016 and December 2021, WCS-India, a non-profit working on wildlife conservation, recorded 172 instances of the illegal sand boa trade across the country. India has witnessed an 80% decline in the sightings of red sand boas in some areas due to the illegal wildlife trade, according to the report titled, Illegal Trade of Red Sand Boa in India 2016-2021.
The Counter Wildlife Trafficking programme of WCS-India trawled through media reports about the smuggling of the red sand boa (Eryx johnii), one of the three boa species found in India and the one that is most often traded illegally.
The red sand boa, along with the common sand boa (Eryx conicus) and the endemic Whitaker’s boa (Eryx whitakeri), are listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Among the incidents of seizures mentioned in the report, 15 included sand boas alongside other wildlife species, while 157 records related only to sand boas. Furthermore, 121 of the 157 incidents documented seizures involving red sand boas.
“This report is an attempt to bring to light the trade in red sand boas, especially online trade, and to develop a better understanding that might help prevent this illegal collection and sale,” said Uttara Mendiratta, programme head, Counter Wildlife Trafficking programme of Wildlife Conservation Society-India in a press statement.
Boa species are known as ‘starter’ pets because of their ease of maintenance. In India, the illegal trade of sand boas, particularly the red sand boa, is rooted in superstitions that they are auspicious and bring fortune to the owners. People also believe, erroneously, that they can bring rainfall when there is drought. Red sand boas are reportedly used in black magic, occult practices and traditional medicine, the report states. Similar superstitions are also prevalent in China, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, which fuels the illegal trade.
The incidents of illegal sand boa trade were documented in 18 states and one union territory, covering 87 districts across India. The highest number was recorded in Maharashtra (59), where more trades were recorded in urban areas compared to rural areas. The second highest was in Uttar Pradesh (33), often from regions near the international border with Nepal.
The report noted that YouTube serves as a buyer-seller-interface for red sand boas in India, and can also be a gateway to facilitate trade using WhatsApp. On YouTube, traders posted videos of sand boas and mentioned their phone numbers in the title and/or the descriptions. Potential customers also contact sellers through the comments sections of these videos. Almost 200 videos advertising sand boas for sale were retrieved from YouTube in 2021. According to the researchers, many of these originated from sellers in Maharashtra and Telangana.
The report also included recommendations to curb the illegal trade of boas, such as law enforcement authorities and conservation organisations building due diligence systems in collaboration with YouTube and WhatsApp to reduce the risk of wildlife trafficking.
WCS-India’s long-term recommendation is that government, conservation organisations and civil society collaborate to use India’s technological capabilities for consistent cyber-patrolling.