Mehmood sorting his catch for remaining clients. PHOTO: ASIF MEHMOOD/EXPRESS

Serpent hunters and the curse of Covid-19

Snake traders find themselves on the short end of the stick post-lockdown

Asif Mehmood September 08, 2020

The coronavirus-induced lockdown, which although only lasted a few months in its full effect, has had a crippling impact on the country’s informal economies. Even as a move towards resuming some form of normalcy is mulled over, the lasting impacts of the crisis still linger for many unregulated businesses. One such sector, extant on the fringes of society for centuries, is the snake hunting industry, which too has been left on its last leg following the brief economic shutdown.

“It has been a rough year so far. The ban on snake games and exhibitions has crushed our business. We can’t even sell snakes worth Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000 at a throw-away price of Rs 1,000 anymore,” said Shahid Mehmood, a snake merchant from Lal Pul Mughalpura area of Lahore.

Mehmood, who has been involved in reptile trade for over four decades, says that he has never experienced the kind of crisis his industry is faced with right now and there has been little of remedy post-lockdown. According to the trader, he would hunt for snakes across Punjab’s mountainous regions all year round expect for winters, and return with at least 50 to 60 serpents of various verities each time. “Monsoon is the best season for snake-hunting, that’s when they slither out of their nests into the open and are easier to spot,” he told.

Sometimes, the Maghalpura hunter would even wander out of the province in search of a bigger catch or return early upon chancing upon a rare ophidian, which he was certain could make a lucrative sale.

“A majority of my clients are snake charmers, hakeems, spiritual healers, hermits and medical colleges. Every once in a while, there would also be someone from the show business industry who would come to me looking for a snake for some film or drama shoot,” told Mehmood. “I don’t do anything illegal though, all species of snake except Pythons can be legally hunted as per the Punjab Wildlife Act,” he added.

However, where trade was once booming, Mehmood has gone without any business for several months now, having caught as little as 50 to 60 ordinary snakes in the last five months. Due to the lack of customers, there has also been a severe drop in ophidian prices after the lockdown. Regular snake varieties which once costed Rs700 to Rs800 are down to Rs150 to Rs200.

“Two-headed serpents and Black Cobras which were sold for Rs1, 500 to Rs2,500 are now being sold for downwards of Rs1,000 and yet there are no customers. The business has been in a standstill ever since they banned snake exhibitions and neither are there any new films or dramas being produced which require snakes.”

According to Mehmood, his entire client base has been thinned down to a few hermits and hakeems, who still require the snakes for their venom and to conduct experiments. “I caught my first snake when I was merely 15 years old. My master had lowered me into a well to hunt a particular serpent. Between then and now, I have experienced many snake bites but none have been deadly.

For me, snake-hunting is a skill, an art form, which requires extreme presence of mind. It has existed on the fringes of society for centuries and passed down from one generation to another but today, like many industries, it is also threatened by the economic impact of Covid-19,” he told The Express Tribune.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 8th, 2020.


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