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AP Press: Illegal hunting for rattlesnakes provides income

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Posted by W von Papinešu on January 25, 2003 at 22:27:42:

ASSOCIATED PRESS 21 January 03 Illegal hunting for rattlesnakes provides meager income for some northern Mexicans (John Sevigny)
Huizache, Mexico: Arriving by donkey and in battered pickups, dozens of families converge on a highway in northern Mexico for their illegal market in dead rattlesnakes.
They come every day, despite low prices and the occasional government raid aimed at stopping trade in the protected snakes. There are few other ways to make money in this desolate region.
Campesinos hunt the snakes with machetes on remote desert ranches, then travel to roadside shacks to await customers, some from the United States and even as far away as Asia. Buyers eat the meat, and some use the skins as medicine or as charms to ward off bad luck.
Nobody on this stretch of highway north of San Luis Potosi is getting rich selling rattlesnakes, which sell for as little as 50 pesos (US$5) apiece.
"The money is not so good," says Rosa Maria Lopez, a 45-year-old mother of three sitting behind a wooden rack festooned with dead rattlers and bottles of amber-colored oil made from the snakes. "Sometimes I sell two rattlesnakes in a day. Sometimes I don't even sell one."
Lopez lives in a remote mountain village not far from Huizache where there are few jobs and the earth is so dry almost nothing grows. If she didn't sell snakes, her family would go hungry, she says.
But the law is not on her side. Juan Carlos Moreno, a federal environmental official in the closest city, Monterrey, says the vendors are hurting the environment by killing rattlesnakes. And their business is based on mistaken folklore, he says.
"These people believe erroneously that the rattlesnake has magical qualities that cure cancer, but there's no evidence that's true," Moreno says. "Unfortunately, it's an idea that has been passed from generation to generation since the time of the Aztecs."
Although boot companies and some other businesses have licenses to raise, kill and process rattlesnakes, no one in Mexico has permission to harvest the snakes in the wild or to sell them on the street.
Four years ago, Moreno and his agents staged a big raid on this stretch of highway, confiscating hundreds of dead rattlers and other banned animal products such as coyote pelts and dead skunks, which are used in witchcraft. The agents levied dozens of fines, which many of the vendors could not afford to pay.
Within weeks, however, the snake sellers were back in business at Huizache and, as before, also smuggling dead snakes north to cities like Monterrey, where they are stocked by the dozen in market stalls.
At Mercado Juarez, one of Monterrey's most popular markets, shoppers line up for herbs, votive candles and magic oil at dozens of traditional herb shops known as "hierberias."
The shops often conceal dead rattlesnakes behind sales displays. But they are just as easy to buy as the more common tourist offerings of leather sandals, toy guitars and framed pictures of Pancho Villa.
"I almost never sell rattlesnakes in my store, but people come looking for them every day," says one vendor, Grita Idalia. "There are 40 hierberias in this market, and if I don't have rattlesnakes, someone else does."
Moreno, the environmental official, says it's a tough job trying to take dead rattlesnakes out of the shops.
"When we enter the markets, people hide anything they have," he says. "We don't have the right to make searches if we haven't actually seen something, so what can we do?"
Apart from the law, snake sellers face danger each time they handle the venomous reptiles. One snake seller in Monterrey showed off scars from snake bites on his hands and back, and most merchants knew of people who had been killed by rattlers.
But poverty means people have little choice.
In Huizache, Lopez's children wave down passing cars to beg for change while she works. Snake sellers huddle in shacks made of trash and limbs from mesquite trees, warming themselves in the black smoke of burning truck tires.
Lopez says that until the government does something to change the economic situation, she'll defy the law and risk being bitten by rattlers.
Gesturing at her display of snakes, says, "If the government takes this away, they'll be taking away our tortillas."

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