In the heart of India's diverse wildlife, lies a lesser-known but concerning issue—the illegal trade in sand boas, a non-venomous snake species, noted in a report titled "Illegal Trade of Red Sand Boa in India–2016-2021," compiled by compiled by the Counter Wildlife Trafficking team at Wildlife Conservation Society-India.
Sand boas belong to the sub-family Erycinae, under the family Boidae, and are characterised by stout bodies, primarily burrowing habits, and a lack of venom. While these creatures are native to regions spanning North Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and South and Central Asia, India plays host to three distinct species: the common sand boa (Eryx conicus), Whitaker's boa (Eryx whitakeri), and the red sand boa (Eryx johnii).
A Look At The Situation
Among these, the red sand boa, also known as the brown sand boa or Indian sand boa, takes centre stage in India's illegal wildlife trade. All three species are listed as "Near Threatened" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with dwindling populations in their respective habitats. The decline in red sand boa sightings in some regions, reportedly by as much as 80 per cent, stems primarily from rampant overharvesting for the illegal wildlife trade, establishing the species as one of India's most trafficked reptiles.
Recent amendments to India's Wildlife Protection Act have elevated the entire Boidae family, which encompasses sand boas, from Schedule IV to Schedule II. This shift prohibits the capture, hunting, possession, and sale of all endemic species within this family across India. Additionally, all three sand boa species found in India are listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), making exporting specimens without a permit illegal.
To shed light on the extent of this issue, a comprehensive study was conducted, which involved an exhaustive review of relevant literature and collating and analysing data from various sources. These sources included media reports, YouTube videos, newsletters, websites, social media pages, and insights from enforcement agencies. The study particularly prioritised findings related to the red sand boa.
The results revealed a pervasive and substantial presence of illegal online sand boa trade throughout India. Over five years from January 2016 to December 2021, a total of 172 unique media records were documented, with 121 of these incidents involving seizures of red sand boas. These incidents occurred across 18 states and one union territory, spanning 87 districts. The highest number of occurrences were reported in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh.
Furthermore, an alarming number of YouTube videos—up to 200 in 2021—promoted the sale of sand boas, many originating from sellers in Maharashtra and Telangana. These videos facilitated buyer-seller interactions, with potential traders openly sharing contact information in the comments section.
The Way Out
Nirmal Kulkarni, a seasoned herpetologist and Senior Consultant at WCS-India pointed out, "The red sand boa has gained notoriety as one of the most sought-after reptile species in the illicit wildlife trade, driven by its demand in the pet industry and its use in black magic."
On the other hand, Uttara Mendiratta, the Program Head for the Counter Wildlife Trafficking initiative at Wildlife Conservation Society-India, highlighted, "The red sand boa has been categorised as a species nearing threat according to the IUCN, with its population dwindling across its natural habitats. This report aims to shed light on the trade in red sand boas, especially online, and seeks to foster a deeper understanding that can aid in curbing the illegal collection and sale of these reptiles."
The report presents a range of short-term and long-term recommendations to combat this illicit trade. These include educating journalists to combat misinformation about sand boas, engaging with social media platforms to curb the online sale of these snakes, and fostering dialogue among enforcement agencies, researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders.