Risky business: China’s snake farmers cash in on global venom market

By: Gene Marks | theguardian.com

In ‘snake village’, entrepreneurs have overcome their fears as poison fetches a high priceCreepy. Crawly. Slithery. Gross. Lots of people are afraid of snakes and would rather not go near the things. But for those willing to put those fears aside, there’s money to be made in the snake business. How much? How about $12m a year?

That’s the amount of revenue generated by a few entrepreneurial snake farmers in the tiny village of Zisiqiao in China’s Zhejiang province. Fang Yin and his wife Yang Xiaoxia are two of those entrepreneurs.

“At first I was afraid and thought they were gross,” the aptly named Fang told the South China Morning Post. “But now I’m used to all this.” Cobras, pythons and vipers can be found in many homes in Zisiqiao including Fang and Yang’s, which is why many call the place “snake village”.

Gross, yes. But profitable? Definitely.

The 30-year-old couple, along with others from their village, sell more than 3 million snakes a year to pharmaceutical companies who use the gall bladders, livers and skin from the reptiles to create nutritional supplements which are ultimately sold to customers in Japan, South Korea, America and Europe.

Snakes have been considered medicinal for thousands of years in China. People there, and in other places around the world, swallow snake pills and drink snake wine made from snake-based ingredients because they believe that it helps to cure spinal disease or reduce the damage to one’s liver when taken before drinking alcohol. A single gram of snake venom can bring in 3,000-5,000 yuan (about $450-$750) and many restaurants use snake meat as ingredients for cooking.

Of course, the occupation can have its drawbacks. Like … um … being bitten and dying? Reuters previously reported that some of the local farmers routinely suffer snake bites and are only saved by injection of an anti-venom medicine. A few avoid the more dangerous vipers altogether. “I am still scared today,” one farmer told the news agency. “Life is valuable and making money is secondary.”

A single gram of snake venom can bring in 3,000-5,000 yuan ($450-$750).

A single gram of snake venom can bring in 3,000-5,000 yuan ($450-$750). Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

But some people are willing to take risks when there’s money to be made, and many in the province have put aside their fears or disgust of snake farming for the benefits of being self-employed. Ninety percent of the area’s 170 families depend on snake-raising for income, according to a report from the Global Times.

Fang, who previously worked for a pharmaceutical firm, thanks the reptiles for providing him and his family a livelihood. The farmer brings in about 400,000 yuan (about $60,000) a year. The area’s largest snake farmer – 60-year-old Yang Hongchang – began catching snakes back in 1985 and has built three enterprises that breed vipers, produce snake meat and process health remedies and brings in about $20m yuan (approximately $3m) annually.

All businesses have their risks, right? Sometimes there are profits to be made from doing things – dangerous, scary, creep things – that most people don’t want to do. But when there’s risk, there’s reward. “Compared to being employed by someone, I’d rather stay at home and do this, because I make more money,” said Fang.

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