Energy-efficient protein for a hungry planet
Table 1. Overview of some of the key species farmed in Asia.
A brief history
Sophisticated commercial production systems are mostly a 21st century phenomenon. It is true that turtles have been farmed since the 1870’s, and some crocodilian, snake and lizard farming systems have been around for more than 50 years. These original early versions were mostly geared to supply exclusive niche markets, and production models operated outside the realms of mainstream agri-food industries.
At the turn of the century, China was consuming an estimated 10,000 tons of wild-caught snakes per year. Ever-growing demand soon forced these markets to import wild-caught snakes, and the financial implications of this, together with government policy shifts in favour of wildlife farming, catalyzed the advent of the modern snake farming industry. The commercial farming of snakes proved to be relatively cheap and easy, and reptile-centric agricultural colleges sprung up to cater for the expansion in production systems, products and markets. Snake farming empowered many rural communities, and by 2019 there were well over 400,000 people engaged in the Asian reptile farming industry. In that same year the wholesale snake market in Guangzhou City, China, turned over an estimated USD 237 million dollars’ worth of snakes. Today, reptile farming occurs in many countries, but the epicenter of the industry remains in East and Southeast Asia.
The basic ingredients for commercial viability
Reptiles are mainly farmed for meat, skins and pharmaceuticals. Reptile meat and medicinal products are common throughout the tropics, but it was disposable income generated by China’s elite that financed the development of the snake farming industry. Reptile skins are a precious and sustainable exotic leather, with Europe being the most important trade hub for skins since the dawn of haute couture in the mid-nineteenth century.
The success of reptile farming is based somewhat on access to cheap protein as livestock feed. The success of the industry is partly due to the high levels of waste protein generated by industrial pork, poultry and aquaculture operations. At the small-scale level, the abundance of rodents and amphibians that accompanied the ‘green revolution’ (e.g., crop pests associated with multiple rice harvests per year) have been an important factor. More recently, artificial and scientifically formulated diets have been developed, and these, combined with the ectothermic (cold-blooded) physiology of reptiles are resulting in similar feed conversion ratios to those seen in the aquaculture and insect farming industries.
Another crucial prerequisite to the success of reptile farming is renewable energy. Reptiles rely on ambient temperatures to maintain optimal metabolic outputs. In tropical maritime regions, suitable temperatures can be provided through simple enclosure design, but in more challenging climates, farms typically exploit solar energy, such as greenhouse technology.
Increasing efficiencies and economies of scale continue to lower production costs, and today reptile farming is less reliant on lucrative niche markets and more focused on leveraging unique sustainability credentials as a response to global challenges.
Species and production models
For the most part, reptile species, enclosure designs, diets, feeding regimes, handling systems, breeding techniques, etc. are still evolving. Many production systems increasingly resemble commercial poultry farms in terms of housing, scientifically formulated diets, clinical hygiene standards and precision management. Solar capture technology is a key feature of many progressive reptile farms, as are insulation technologies and climate control systems. Enclosure temperatures typically range between 21C and 35C, but these can vary depending on management objectives. Vertical production is common in lizard and snake farming systems. Species currently being farmed are listed in Table 1 above.
Reptile farming requires relatively little maintenance when compared to other farmed species. A study in Asia found that many small-scale reptile farmers prefer reptiles to other forms of livestock because (1) reptiles are more resilient to disease compared to ducks, chickens and pigs, (2) reptiles do not require as much time input, and (3) management routines for reptiles are more flexible. Typical management activities on small-scale farms include ongoing spot cleaning, weekly feeding and watering, and monthly grading to ensure animals are separated into similar sized cohorts.
The ability to manipulate growth rate is a unique feature of reptile farms. For example, if prices are low, farmers can simply stop feeding and suspend operations for months on end. Conversely, farmers also have the ability to exploit unique hyperphagia behaviours (e.g., eating over 100% of their body weight in a single sitting) to maximise outputs when market prices are high. Farmers use these same principles to negate extreme weather events or disruptions in supply chains – common side effects of global challenges such as climate change and COVID-19.
Crocodiles, turtles, tortoises, snakes and lizards are traditionally consumed in South, Central and North America, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East and Southeast Asia and Oceania. Reptile meat can be found on the menu of many mainstream restaurants in Asia, but elsewhere it is typically sold as a novelty food or cultural specialty. The versatility of reptile meat in Asian cuisine is legendary, and virtually every part of the animal – meat, fat, skin, bone, blood, heart, liver and gall bladder – is used to make an almost infinite variety of dishes. The consumption of reptile meat can be culturally important. For example, in China it is associated with balancing Yin and Yang, with demand for snake meat is highest during the winter months when the Yang qualities are purported to have multifarious health benefits.
Prior to COVID, the demand for reptile meat was growing in geographical inference and volume. In 2019, deboned snake meat had a wholesale value of US$25 – US$64 / kg. Live snakes were retailing for US$14 – US$36 / kg, with a single large rat snake (Ptyas mucosa) fetching up to US$120. It remains to be seen how COVID-related changes in trade policies will affect the industry.
Reptile meat is purported to have many medicinal benefits, apparently due to its superior amino acid profile. Reptile bile and wine are consumed as healing tonics and/or aphrodisiacs in East and Southeast Asia and the fat is regarded as a healing balm throughout the tropics. Research shows that reptile fat contains anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal and bacteriostatic properties. Dried gall bladders sell for between US$324 – US$400 / kg. Dried snake venom sells for approximately US$486 / g. Whole dried snakes destine for the Traditional Chinese Medicine market sell for approximately US$20 / kg.
Hundreds of millions of years of natural evolution have designed reptile skin to be a perfect blend of functionality and aesthetics. Durable and water repellent yet lightweight and breathable, reptile leather comes in a variety of textures, patterns and colours. It tans well, is easy to work with, and is 100% biodegradable. It is considered a precious commodity within the luxury fashion industry and a single reptile leather handbag can retail for over US$100,000. Prices and market trends for wholesale reptile skins can be volatile, and can vary tremendously with species, size class, quality and trends. A dried rat snake skin sells for up to US$7; sundried python skins for US$11 – 34 per meter; raw crocodilian skins for US$21 – $120 per meter; and very large python and crocodile skins for over $1000 per individual. According to the Sustainable Apparel Coalition scoring criteria, reptile leather is one of the most sustainable materials used by the fashion industry.