Despite their grim look and the ancestral fears that they produce in us, snakes play critical roles in their respective ecosystems.
So much so that they’re more beneficial than detrimental to their habitat. Naturally, some snake species rank as pests due to their effects on the human population, but most don’t.
Today, we will discuss a more sensitive topic – the conservation status and endangerment of snakes. Let’s jump right in!
Threats to Snake Populations
Snakes face several threats, no matter the species they belong to and their native habitat.
- Natural predation – Most snakes are not apex predators. They are excellent hunters and often kill prey larger than their bodies, but they’re not at the top of the food chain. They also have predators to contend with, which include reptiles, other snakes, birds, mammals, and even aquatic animals. Some species don’t have any natural predators. For instance, the taipan, which is the snake with the deadliest venom in the world, has no natural predators in its adult form. Burmese pythons also have no natural predators as adults, aside from humans, and the same goes for adult anacondas.
- Habitat loss – Habitat loss occurs for two primary reasons: natural and human-driven. Natural habitat destruction is, well, natural. Massive seasonal forest fires or landslides contribute to the issue significantly. Then you have the fact that humans need to terraform their surrounding habitat when building their settlements, which causes the snakes’ natural habitat to become smaller by the year. This forces the snakes to expand to other areas, which they may not be well-equipped to survive in.
- Poaching – Poaching occurs for different reasons, including snake meat, skin, trophy hunting, and illegal pet trade. Some snake species are targeted more than others due to their distinct look and behavior, but very few reptiles are safe in this sense.
- Climate change – Unfortunately, this isn’t something we have a lot of control over. Climate changes are natural and have been taking place for millions of years before the first primates ever step foot on land. The problem with climate change is that they disturb the snakes’ physiology. Snakes are cold-blooded animals, so they’re extremely sensitive to temperature and humidity. Some snakes have adapted to colder regions by developing thicker skin and scales and entering brumation once a year. The problem is that climate change moves faster than the snakes’ ability to adapt to new parameters. This makes it more difficult for these reptiles to breed and regulate their body temperature, with grim long-term consequences.
- Invasive species – Snakes have learned to adapt to the local predators by evolving predator-specific defensive mechanisms. For instance, snakes that live in areas with fire ants are generally arboreal, which protects them from the ants’ venomous bites. They also have thicker skin and don’t care much about the nasty insects. But fire ants have been accidentally introduced in areas they could never have reached alone. This turned them into an invasive species with dramatic consequences for the local fauna, unaccustomed with the devilish intruders. No snake species living in that area has had any contact with fire ants before, which means that they’re not equipped to handle the new threat. This can cause hatchlings and juveniles to fall victim to the colonies of fire ants that can devour anything in their path. And similar examples are present everywhere.
- Pollution – Environmental pollution is another common threat, this time linked to human activity. Humans pollute the environment mostly incidentally, with air and water pollution being the most common culprits. These chemical pollutants not only affect the snakes themselves but their prey as well, leading to proxy contamination and affecting the snake population dramatically. This is a worrying problem for secluded species with nowhere to go.
- Pest status – Some snakes simply rank as pests, which leads humans to hunt them intentionally. This is either because they’re venomous and live near human settlements, as is the case with the king cobra in countries like India, or for their exceptional reproductive rate, causing them to invade urban and rural areas.
While there are numerous threats that snakes have to contend with, not all snake species face the same dangers or are as affected.
Some are fine because of their adaptability and reproductive prowess, while others are more sensitive and need protection under the law.
Endangered and Threatened Species
There are multiple snake species that currently qualify as endangered or threatened.
- The Malayan krait – This is a venomous species that inhabits Southeast Asia and ranks endangered due to habitat destruction and poaching. The most prized asset is the snake’s skin, which is being sold as a trophy to collectors.
- The black mamba – The black mamba is one of the most lethal reptiles in the world. It is also endangered due to extreme poaching, habitat destruction, and fragmentation. Black mambas are worth a lot of money due to their high trophy value.
- The Philippine cobra – This species only lives in the Philippines, which already paints it as an endangered animal. Being venomous, isolated to one region, and forced to share space with humans doesn’t bode well with the snake’s survival goals. Habitat destruction and constant poaching and hunting represent the cobra’s main threats.
- The Javan cobra – This is another venomous snake that only inhabits the Java Island in Indonesia. Naturally, habitat destruction and local hunting for skin and medicinal purposes are the main threats.
- The Barbados threadsnake – This small snake species endemic to Barbados ranks as critically endangered. The main threat is habitat destruction and degradation, pushing the population to the brink.
These are just several snake species that qualify as vulnerable or endangered, but hundreds more face similar threats.
The situation is not entirely grim because several conservation practices are in place to help endangered snakes rebuild their population.
- Habitat protection – This is the most important measure because different snake species have adapted to thrive in specific environments. These need preserving because snakes cannot adapt to another ecosystem overnight. It takes entire generations for a snake population to adapt to slightly different habitats; even then, the results are uncertain. So, the priority is to preserve the snakes’ native habitats, which usually consist of creating natural parks and wildlife reserves.
- Captive breeding and reintroduction – This is another good strategy to increase the population numbers of an endangered species. Such programs capture wild snakes and breed them in captivity in a controlled setting. The resulting juveniles are then released in the wild to restore the species’ numbers. The method is meant to reduce or even eliminate egg and hatchling loss that results from natural predation. The problem is that not all snakes breed in captivity, while others require special care to reproduce successfully.
- Regulating snake hunting and trade – Snake hunting and trade may be limited or totally forbidden under the law, depending on the population’s status. This is to allow the snake population to recover. Naturally, this is easier said than done, especially in the case of high-profile species that possess a lot of market value. In their case, the hunting and trading embargo increases their market value, which incentivizes illegal poaching even more. So, there’s a constant battle taking place between poachers and law enforcers.
- Minimizing the impact of invasive species – Invasive species can be just as detrimental to specific snake populations as human activity, sometimes even more. Minimizing their impact is critical for protecting the endangered reptile species.
- Raising awareness – Educating people on the impact of snake populations on their habitat and their role in the ecosystem is critical. For instance, many people kill corn snakes on sight because these reptiles prefer to live near human settlements. By doing, so, they are oblivious to the snake’s role in the ecosystem since corn snakes are primarily rodent hunters. This is why they’re more prevalent near greeneries and areas infested with rodents.
- Monitoring the species – Each vulnerable species is being monitored constantly to assess the population’s status and determine when things go south. This allows specialists to act in time in case the situation degrades at an accelerated pace.
There’s no denying that snakes exhibit higher survival rates when their habitats don’t overlap human settlements.
But since that’s not an option in some cases, other protection methods are necessary to make up for it.
Habitat Preservation of Snakes
Habitat preservation is always the first protective strategy to use when trying to protect an endangered species.
The notion of habitat preservation itself refers to several strategies, such as:
- Educating the public regarding the importance of snakes in their respective ecosystem (this can be achieved via the public education system and online social platforms)
- Creating closed ecosystems in the form of natural parks and wildlife reserves to contain the endangered or vulnerable species
- Limit habitat destruction or transformation whenever possible
- Create active local communities of volunteers and paid personnel willing to partake in the efforts of protecting the local fauna, etc.
While active measures are great at mitigating the impact of habitat destruction, it’s education that makes the most difference.
People need to learn that snakes are not our enemies but usually our allies, cooperating with us in turning our ecosystem safer and more stable. This refers especially to rodent hunters that specialize in eating rats, mice, pest lizards, and other animals that we view as damaging.
Legal Protection of Snakes
Several laws and regulations are put in place to protect vulnerable and endangered snake species.
- The Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – CITES is an international treaty that protects various endangered species, including snakes. The entity specialized in the trade area, regulating international trade and requiring special permits and certificates when trading a protected species. The goal is to protect the species and keep track of the trading system to monitor its impact on the wild population.
- The Endangered Species Act (ESA) – ESA ranks as one of the most influential legal bodies in terms of the legal protection of endangered species. This US entity functions based on a federal law that limits or forbids the trading, killing, capturing, injuring, or harassing of any specimen belonging to any of the listed species.
- The Wildlife Protection Act (WPA) – This is an Indian federal law designed to protect endangered wild animals and prohibits hunting, trading, and capturing any of the protected species. The legal organism has also put in place numerous wildlife sanctuaries to protect and support the growth of endangered populations.
- The Wildlife Conservation Act in Canada (WCAC) – WCAC is the Canadian version of WPA with similar roles and prerogatives. Some of the main goals include building sanctuaries and limiting or prohibiting the killing, capturing, and trading of any of the protected species.
- The Wildlife Protection Act in Australia (WPAA) – WPAA limits the trading, hunting, capturing, and trapping of protected local species.
All of these legal bodies aim to preserve endangered and vulnerable species, as well as increase their populations and restore the animals’ natural habitats.
Violating these laws puts you at risk of legal repercussions, such as fines, imprisonment, as well as the confiscation of any equipment you may have been using during your unlawful activities.
You may also be forbidden from accessing specific geographical areas, engaging in any type of animal trade, and having any contact with endangered or vulnerable species.
Ever-advancing research is also worth promoting, allowing for improved monitoring and understanding of endangered species and the factors influencing their status.
Some of the core research-specific efforts worth mentioning include:
- Population monitoring – This allows researchers to understand a given population’s dynamics and assess its evolution in real time. Specialists can quickly detect population problems and address them before things become critical. The information gathered this way includes the reasons for a population’s decline, the mitigating factors worth considering, and the extent of the problem.
- The study of the species’ ecology and behavior – Assessing a species’ ecological, physiological, and social behaviors speaks volumes about the species’ ability to adapt to environmental changes. Some species are better equipped to handle threats that others cannot overcome. It’s important to learn the difference between them so that adequate measures are taken in time.
- Understand the link between animals and climate – There’s no denying the distinct link between animals and their respective ecosystems. Snakes are particularly sensitive to environmental changes because they have adapted to a specific climate with specific parameters. Understanding which species are more sensitive to climate change is crucial when determining the right course of action.
- Assessing the population’s genetic diversity – All animal populations record slight variations in their genetic code over time. These changes snowball with time, eventually influencing the animal’s behavior, adaptability, and adaptation prowess. Keeping track of these changes is essential for understanding where one species is headed and how it will react to the upcoming environmental shifts.
Snakes are undoubtedly some of the most adaptable animals on the planet. That being said, science informs us that nearly 99.9% of all animal species that have ever lived have gone extinct.
They no longer exist today; this includes numerous snake species, although the actual number is difficult to calculate.
While most of these species have gone extinct during the many extinction events on a planetary scale, others have simply faded over time.
Some of the reasons included habitat changes and the species’ lack of adaptability. Many snake species today face the same threats, aside from the danger of sharing the same planet with humans.
This shows why protecting these species is a priority today.