Contributions to Zoology, 86 (1) – 2017Vincent Nijman; Daniel Bergin: Reptiles traded in markets for medicinal purposes in contemporary Morocco

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Drugs made from leaves, herbs, roots, bulbs, bark, animals, animal parts, and animal derivatives are widely listed in the pharmacopoeias of folk societies and in traditional medicine (Adeola, 1992; Still, 2003; Mahawar and Jaroli, 2008; Whiting et al., 2013; Segniagbeto et al., 2013). Ingredients derived from wild plants and animals are important in the preparation of traditional remedies and the usefulness of these substances has been long recognized in modern evidence-based medicine. For instance, an analysis in 2010 showed that more than two-thirds of all drugs discovered over the previous 30 years were derived from natural products (Newman and Cragg, 2012). Certain types of medicine can become so popular, sometimes spreading outside the region in which they were initially used, that the extraction of the raw material from the wild becomes an impediment to biodiversity conservation. It has been noted that some of the lesser known and smaller species can be negatively affected by the trade for traditional medicine (Sadovy and Cheung, 2003; Nijman et al., 2012a; Humle and Konate, 2015; Byard, 2016; Rowley et al., 2016). Reptiles (including turtles, tuataras, lizards, snakes, and crocodiles) are widely used in folk and traditional medicine (Zhou and Jiang, 2004; Alves et al., 2008, 2009; Magnino et al., 2009; Segniagbeto et al., 2013), and there are numerous examples in which their use has led to the decline of species (Gong et al., 2009; Nijman et al., 2012a, b; Caillabet, 2013).

Morocco is an area of particular concern with respect to the species declines, including those from medicinal uses. With 99 species of reptiles, Morocco is one of the Mediterranean countries with the highest diversity of herpetofauna (Cox et al., 2006), in part because of the high levels (around 25%) of endemism (Pleguezuelos et al., 2010). Endemic reptiles include the Moroccan glass lizard (Ophisaurus koellikeri Günther, 1873), mountain viper (Vipera monticola Saint-Girons, 1954), Moroccan worm lizard (Blanus mettetali Bons, 1963), Tangier worm lizard, (B. tingitanus Busack 1988), and, possibly, Moroccan spiny lizard (Uromastyx nigriventris Rothschild and Hartert, 1912) (see Harris et al., 2007), the latter here treated as part of Bell’s Dabb lizard (U. acanthinura Bell, 1825). Many species are vulnerable due to intrinsic factors such as restricted range, low density, and limited dispersal capacity. These threats are followed in importance by habitat loss, accidental mortality, and accidental harvesting (Pleguezuelos et al., 2010). Endemic, or otherwise small-ranged, species are also potentially vulnerable to climate change (Martínez-Freiría et al., 2013). The main causes of habitat loss and habitat degradation are due to land use changes, with an increasing proportion being used for intense agriculture (Cox et al., 2006; van Lavieren and Wich, 2010). According to Pleguezuelos et al. (2010), harvesting for traditional medicine and entertainment is a serious threat to reptiles in Morocco, particularly to snakes.

Compared to many other societies, the use of reptiles in traditional medicine in Morocco has been relatively well documented. However, contemporary quantitative accounts are rare. Jackson (1810) reported on the trade in the Mediterranean chameleon (Chamaeleo chamaeleon Linnaeus, 1758) in the cities that are currently known as Marrakesh and Fez, noting that both the meat and the dried bodies were sold in drug shops. A few decades later, Leared (1876) reported on the medicine used by Moroccans, using data and specimens collected primarily at Marrakesh and Essaouira. The majority of his report concerns medicine derived from plants and reptiles. Like Jackson, he singled out the Mediterranean chameleon as a species of particular importance in trade. Fifty years later, Westermarck (1926) wrote a treaty on the rituals and beliefs of the Moroccans and devoted a significant section to the medicinal uses of and mysticism surrounding animals, including spur-thighed tortoises (Testudo graeca Linnaeus, 1758), chameleons, lizards, and especially snakes. Fogg (1938, 1941) reported on the uses of plants, animals, and minerals as used by a single traditional folk doctor in the northernmost part of the country bordering the Mediterranean Sea. He gave accounts of the medicinal uses for Mediterranean chameleons, a lizard (possibly either Atlas dwarf lizard, (Atlantolacerta andreanskyi Werner, 1929), North Africa eyed lizard, (Timon tangitanus Boulenger, 1887) or Tunisian eyed lizard, (Timon pater Lataste, 1880)), and skin and fat of snakes.

More recent accounts of use of reptiles included those by Akhmisse (1985), who focused strongly on the mystical aspects but who singled out the Mediterranean chameleon and the spur-thighed tortoises for medicinal uses, and Meziane (2003), who gave a contemporary account of the use of traditional medicine in the town of D’Oujda and highlighted the use of chameleons and snakes. Although there was no mention of their use in medicine, Znari et al. (2005) found 692 spur-thighed tortoises in the markets at Marrakesh in 2001, a high proportion of which were small individuals. Highfield and Bayley (2007) gave a brief overview of the folklore, myths, and exploitation of reptiles in Morocco (and Tunisia), but added few new quantitative data. Finally, and most recently, Martin and Perry-Martin (2012) reported on the wildlife trade. They recorded an unknown number of live Mediterranean chameleons and other lizards for sale in Fez as well as dried Mediterranean chameleons and stuffed iguanas (Iguana spp.) in Marrakesh, but provided few additional details.

Here we focus on the trade of reptiles to be used for medicinal purposes as observed in the open markets throughout Morocco. We conducted repeat surveys of a large number of markets, quantified species compositions and volumes in trade, and documented purported medicinal properties and uses. Some of the species we documented in trade are considered globally or regionally threatened with extinction (Pleguezuelos et al., 2010) and we aim to better our understanding of the threat that traditional medicinal trade in Morocco poses to the species and to report ways in which the trade of imperiled reptiles are regulated.