After reading Ruchira and Nilusha Somaweeras' (2010) article on snake wine in Vietnam curiosity got the best of me. I Googled “snake wine,” and discovered that it is the name of a music album by a band named Light Pupil Dilate. However, I also found plenty of websites touting the snake product, explaining its properties and selling it for substantial US dollars. My experience with snakes in wine bottles is restricted to one restaurant, located close to the National Science Museum in Thailand, that had several bottles on a shelf with cobras and unidentified colubrids. The Somaweeras’ article is of interest for several reasons. They documented the use of snakes in snake wine in four cities in Vietnam using surveys conducted at 127 locations selling the serpent beverages. None of the species involved in the commerce were listed on the IUCN Red List, but seven species were listed in the Vietnam Red Data Book, of which five are regulated by CITES. The most abundant species used in the trade, was the natricid Xenochrophis flavipunctatus, a common snake that inhabits rice paddies and more natural wetlands, it made up 47% of the snakes identified. Perhaps the most significant finding of the surveys was the diversity of snakes used. The authors identified 1924 snakes composing more than 18 species (or species complexes) in eight different families. In my web search, a site called Thailand Unique contained the top photo at the left, and contained the following text (I have fixed a few spelling errors here).
“Real Californian King Snake whiskey 50ml 37%v/v. This special whiskey (a.k.a. Rice Wine) is infused with a real farm raised Californian King snake, ginseng roots and other herbs. The whiskey is steeped for several months, which then imparts a unique flavour into the drink, giving it an acquired taste. In SE Asia it is believed to have aphrodisiac properties, however we make no claims to this. Every bottle is unique in its own way so therefore the item purchased may differ slightly in looks but not size.”
One look at the photo and it is clear that the snakes in the bottle never saw California or a farm, they are the Little File Snakes (Acrochordus granulatus), or sea snakes. They are clearly not California Kingsnakes.
Another interesting aspect of this project is that specific species are not being targeted by the industry. Instead, they appear to be using virtually any species available, thus the more common species are being harvested. Protecting wildlife from this kind of exploitation can only be solved through education. Laws are ineffective as deterrents to ideas from belief systems that have been around for thousands of years.
Somaweera, R. & N. Somaweera (2010). Serpents in jars: the snake wine industry in Vietnam. Journal of Threatened Taxa 2(11): 1251-1260.