Endangered Species Handbook

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Persecution and Hunting


The prejudice against snakes may be traced in some cultures to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, in which the snake represents the evil temptor. For many, snakes inspire great fear and loathing, and they are often killed upon sight. In the American West, rattlesnake hunts are carried out in many towns as an annual event, with thousands of snakes captured. After being prodded and manhandled, they are killed, often by being skinned alive. The New Mexican Ridge-nosed Rattlesnake (Crotalus willardi obscurus) is a threatened species on the US Endangered Species Act, persecuted and overcollected in its limited range. In Eastern states, especially in the South, snakes are also hunted for sport, burned alive with gasoline poured down their dens, and killed in bizarre religious ceremonies. One town in Georgia has an annual war on rattlesnakes, killing as many as possible. For some species, this has resulted in serious declines. The Eastern Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus), the largest snake native to the United States, inhabits forested areas with rock faces, crevices and caves in the Northeast. It has become threatened in many parts of its range. These snakes, which range in size from 35 to 74 inches in length, are vulnerable to persecution because they congregate in large numbers in rocky dens and overwinter with other types of snakes for warmth. They hide under rocks where hunters and collectors find them. Timber Rattlesnakes are long-lived, known to survive 30 years or more. Females give birth only every other year, do not mature until age 4 or 5, and have only 5 to 17 young (Behler and King 1979). With such slow reproduction, they are vulnerable to declines when hunted.
This species has legal protection from hunting in Pennsylvania and New York and is listed on their state endangered laws, yet hunting still kills hundreds each year. One rattlesnake hunter, profiled by CNN, bragged that he had captured 9,000 Timber Rattlesnakes in his lifetime and planned to continue openly flouting laws protecting the species. He claimed that he enjoyed catching and killing these snakes so much that he would never stop, and some herpetologists accuse this man of single-handedly causing declines. He has been arrested many times and jailed for trading in endangered species, but refuses to stop. These snakes do not pose a threat to people unless they are sought out in their retreats.
Biologists point out that snakes are extremely useful ecologically, feeding on squirrels, mice, rats and other rodents, but since laws in the United States and around the world either fail to protect snakes or are not enforced, snakes often are persecuted and killed senselessly.

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