Ek Phnom district, Battambang province – When fish became scarce in his corner of the sprawling Tonle Sap, Ly Pov did what thousands of others barely surviving in the lake’s floating villages do: He joined the world’s largest snake hunt, putting his worn fishing nets to a lucrative new use in the flooded forests ringing the lake.
But today, two years after he joined the monsoon season hunt-which annually pulls an estimated 7 million water snakes from Southeast Asia’s largest lake-Ly Pov’s daily haul is a fraction of what it once was, falling from a daily average of 50 kg to just 15 kg.
That signals trouble for the famously fertile Tonle Sap.
Snake hunting became increasingly popular in the last two decades, as the number of fish in the lake declined, according to Sharon Brooks, a doctoral student in biological sciences at the University of East Anglia in England who has been studying the snake hunt and market for the last three years.
Seven of the lake’s estimated 14 snake species, including the endemic Tonle Sap water snake, started being sold as an inexpensive alternative to fish, primarily as crocodile food for the hundreds of crocodile farms around the lake, but also as food for people.
“The fact that [water snakes] are so abundant across the Tonle Sap, occupying so many ecological niches, makes it likely that their over-harvesting will have a profound negative impact on the ecology of the lake,” said Joe Walston, country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is working with the Ministry of Environment to develop government policies to manage the snake population.
But beyond observations of worried Tonle Sap fishermen, the government is unsure how rapidly each snake species is disappearing, and what would happen to the lake and its residents if they were to vanish. “At the moment we just don’t know enough,” Walston said.
Both Walston and Brooks said they believed the number of snakes collected annually on the Tonle Sap to be larger than any other snake hunt in the world. At the present time, at least half of the 15,000 households living on the lake rely on snake hunting for income, Brooks wrote by e-mail.
“Everything about this system-from the hydrology of the lake and the abundance of snakes, to the trade dynamics and markets-is unique,” she added.
But Brooks fears that the snake hunt is unsustainable, with the average snake catch per fisherman declining by approximately 70 percent in recent years. And if the water snake is hunted into oblivion, the effect could be devastating both for the lake and its residents, she said.
The most abundant species, such as the rainbow water snake, which forms 70 percent of hunters’ annual catch, are an important food source for large water birds-many of which are endangered, Brooks said.
“We can’t really say what would happen if the snakes disappeared, especially as the balance of the lake has already been severely disrupted, but it is likely to be quite profound due to the loss of biodiversity,” Brooks said.
Next year, the government plans to conduct its own research to corroborate Brooks’ findings, and to develop a management plan to nurse the snake population back to health, said Heng Savannara of the Ministry of Agriculture’s Fisheries Administration.
“If Cambodia has good management of the water snakes, we think that there’s still potential for plenty of snake hunting,” he added.
Policy options could include creating a hunting off-season, banning some hunting methods, placing certain species on a Protected Species list, or creating additional government-protected wildlife sanctuaries, Walston said.
But writing policies may be easier than enforcing them. Banning snake hunting in the Prek Toal Core Area, one of the lake’s three wildlife sanctuaries, has not stabilized the local water snake population, said Ly Son, head of the protected area’s tourism office.
“The snakes are decreasing every year,” he said last week in his floating office in Prek Toal village. “It’s very difficult to control the hunt…. It’s still anarchy.”
Walston believes that it will be virtually impossible for provincial authorities to enforce any new snake-hunt regulations.
And with crocodile farms buying snakes despite the industry downturn, it seems unlikely that the thousands of snake hunters plying the Tonle Sap’s waters will be able to pass up profit anytime soon.
For Ly Pov, 31, snake hunting is a matter of survival. Asked at his Prek Toal village home what he would do during the wet season if the Tonle Sap’s snakes disappeared altogether, he had a simple answer: “Nothing.”