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

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Volume and value of the trade

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We observed that herbalists displayed protected wildlife openly on the street or in the front of their shops and did not appear concerned about regulations banning sale of the species they displayed; this allowed us to accurately assess the levels of trade. We recorded at least nine species of reptile in trade for medicinal purposes (Fig. 2). The most common was the Mediterranean chameleon, followed by Bell’s Dabb lizard, African rock python, spur-thighed tortoises, and desert monitor lizards (Varanus griseus; Table 1). These species were not equally abundant in the markets (χ2 = 657.1, df = 5, P < 0.001). The desert monitor lizard, Nile crocodile, Egyptian cobra (Naja haje Linnaeus, 1758), and puff adder (Bitis arietans Merrem, 1820) were each observed in smaller numbers than expected when compared to the other remaining species combined (all χ2 > 28.9, df = 1, P < 0.001), whereas the spur-thighed tortoise, Bell’s Dabb lizard, and Mediterranean chameleon were all observed in higher numbers than expected (χ2 > 23.4, df = 1, P < 0.001). Only the African rock python was observed in numbers that did not differ from the expected values when compared to all other species combined (χ2 = 0.20, df = 1, P > 0.60).


Fig. 2. Trade of reptiles for medicinal purposes in Morocco, clockwise from top left: (A) vendor with desert monitor lizard and Bell’s Dabb lizards at herbalist stall in Meknes advertises medicinal products; (B) herbalist stall in Marrakesh; (C) herbalist stall in Casablanca both selling dried Mediterranean chameleons and stuffed Bell’s Dabb lizards; and (D) live Mediterranean chameleon and Bell’s Dabb lizard at a herbalist in Fez. All photographs by Daniel Bergin.


Table 1. Mean number of reptiles traded for medicinal purposes in 20 Moroccan towns in 2013 and 2014. For towns that were surveyed more than once, the range is given. Values in italics include live individuals and values in normal font represent traded in dried specimens only. No snakes were identified to species. Key to genus names: T. = Testudo, C. = Camaeleo, U. = Uromastryx, V. = Varanus, C. = Crocodylus, N. = Naja, B. = Bitis, P. = Python. Snakes refers to unidentified snakes other than Egyptian cobra, puff adder or African rock python.

The volumes of the four most common species in trade in the six cities with the largest volumes of these species show that the species are not traded in equal proportions in these cities (χ2 = 38.0, df = 15, P = 0.02). Thus, Mediterranean chameleon and African rock python were observed in smaller numbers in Casablanca than can be expected on the basis of the number of these species in other markets relative to the number of other species observed in Casablanca (χ2 = 67.5, df = 1, P < 0.001 for the Mediterranean chameleon, and χ2 = 267.6, df = 1, P < 0.001 for the African rock python). Conversely, the number of Bell’s Dabb lizard in Meknes was higher than expected on the basis of the overall (across cities) proportion of this species (χ2 = 105.1, df = 1, P < 0.001).

Prices for the Moroccan species were generally low, with asking prices for spur-thighed tortoise carapace being around US$11, Mediterranean chameleons US$6–44, Bell’s Dabb lizards US$13–22, and desert monitor lizards around US$55. Skins of Nile crocodiles and African rock pythons were considerably higher, with the former demanding prices of US$388–665 and the latter US$133–665. While more expensive species were less common in trade, there was no significant relationship between the mean value and the volumes observed in trade (r = -0.26, n = 6, P = 0.61). The combined the retail value of all the items observed during the 49 surveys was about US$100,000 (MAD­900,000), with some 70% of this value made up of species not, or no longer, native to Morocco. The mean turnover for Mediterranean chameleons after four weeks in the eight shops monitored was 66% (range 40–100%), resulting in an annual turnover of 1,520 chameleons (range 921–2,303). The mean turnover for Bell’s Dabb lizards after four weeks in the six shops monitored was 66% (range 31–100%), resulting in an annual turnover of 775 lizards (range 364–1,174).

Comparing markets

Reptiles were traded for medicinal purposes in 14 of the 20 markets we surveyed in Morocco and the trade in these markets differed in several ways (Table 1). No medicinal reptile trade was observed in the Spanish exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. In eight markets, we observed small numbers (fewer than nine individuals) of reptiles, often comprising one or two species; in four markets, we found intermediate numbers (14–30 individuals) of three to eight species and in two markets, large numbers (> 85 individuals) of five to nine species. There was a positive association between the size of the city (in terms of human inhabitants) and the number of reptiles for sale (Pearson’s r = 0.76, n = 22, P < 0.001; Fig. 3); this association remained significant after the exclusion of cities where no reptiles were observed (r = 0.69, n = 14, P = 0.006). In Casablanca and Marrakesh, the most commonly observed reptiles we observed in trade were Mediterranean chameleons, whereas Bell’s Dabb lizards were equally or more common in Fez and Mekness. For cities where reptiles were offered for sale, there was a positive association between the size of a city and the number of herbalists (r = 0.54, n = 14, P = 0.05), and there was a very strong positive association between the number of herbalists and the total number of reptiles for sale (r = 0.82, n = 14, P < 0.001).


Fig. 3. Relationship between the average number of reptiles offered for sale per survey in 22 cities surveyed in Morocco and the number of human inhabitants in these cities. Data are log-transformed; the maximum average number of reptiles was 163.4 (in Marrakesh) and the largest city is Casablanca with 2.9 million inhabitants.

Based on our qualitative observations, the market in Casablanca clearly was oriented towards the local population, being geographically distinct from the tourist section, and only Moroccans were observed in this area. Reptiles were mostly sold in wooden shops located in a dedicated medicinal area. In Fez, the shops with reptiles for sale were in and around the general tourist area and slightly off to the side streets. The shops in Fez were more solidly built and were more frequented by tourists than in Casablanca. Marrakesh was much more geared towards tourists and the three sections where herbalists sold traditional medicine were all located in the main market. Reptiles were sold in shops, stalls, and in ground stalls. In Meknes, ground stalls were particularly common and trade was clearly geared towards the local customers. Bottles with pictures of animals were common in the ground stalls in Meknes and Marrakesh. The vendors of these ground stalls would, in the evenings, hold up live reptiles and call out to passers-by, advertising their medicinal properties and invariably drawing a substantial crowd.

While there were differences in the species richness in each survey year between these four cities (F3,11 = 5.09, P = 0.02) (Figure 4) and in the numbers of reptiles sold alive (F3,11 = 8.44, P = 0.003) or dried (F3,11 = 4.31, P = 0.03), the proportion of dried specimens did not differ significantly between cities (F3,11 = 2.24, P = 0.14). Fez and Casablanca were similar in terms of the number of species for sale (i.e., about three to four), and in the proportion of trade that comprised dried specimens, which ranged from 68–100% (average 86%) in Fez and from 69–92% (average 82%) in Casablanca. In contrast, the trade in Marrakesh and Meknes comprised more species (about four to six) and a larger proportion of live trade; dried specimens made up 63% (range 37–83%) in Marrakesh and 59% (range 35–84%) in Meknes (Fig. 4).


Fig. 4. Trade in reptiles for medicinal purposes in four Moroccan markets surveyed between April 2013 and December 2014. Open bars are dried specimens and solid bars are live individuals (the number of dried specimens in Marrakesh in June 2013 was 234 and is outside the scale); lines represent species diversity.

Species in trade and their medicinal uses

Over 95% of spur-thighed tortoises observed in trade were alive and intended to be sold as pets. The largest numbers were offered for sale as pets in Marrakesh and Casablanca, where they were often displayed in large plastic boxes in front of the shops. We recorded 57 carapaces, found in eight of the 20 cities surveyed. The highest numbers we recorded were in Marrakesh and Casablanca, both with up to 10 carapaces per survey, but generally numbers of carapaces were low.

The most commonly traded reptile was the Mediterranean chameleon, which was offered for sale in half of the markets surveyed. We recorded 720 individuals, 214 of them alive and 506 dried and stuffed. Numbers were highest in Marrakesh (74 alive, 282 dried, recorded in each survey with up to 237 per survey) and Casablanca (24 alive, 159 dried, recorded in each survey with up to 106 per survey), but the species is also frequently traded in Rabat (61 alive, none dried, recorded in all but one survey with up to 32 per survey). We recorded chameleons only once out of six surveys when we found 55 dried specimens in Meknes in April 2014. There was a clear relationship between the number of herbal shops in a city and the number of chameleons that were offered for sale (r = 0.58, n = 14, P = 0.03; Fig. 4).

Bell’s Dabb lizards were traded in significant quantities in 10 cities: 428 individuals (181 live, 247 dried or stuffed), with highest numbers in Marrakesh (98 live, 100 dried) and Meknes (42 live, 30 dried). Just as with chameleons, there was a clear relationship between the number of herbal shops in a city and the number of Bell’s Dabb lizards that are offered for sale (r = 0.66, n = 14, P = 0.01; Fig. 5). We were informed that burning them was helpful for your eyes and that keeping one in a new house brought good luck.


Fig. 5. Relationship between the number of herbal shops in a city and the mean number of Mediterranean chameleons (open squares, upper regression line) and Bell’s Dabb lizards (filled circles, lower regression line) for sale in 14 cities where reptiles are sold for medicinal purposes. Data are log-transformed. The maximum number of herbal shops was 41, the maximum number of Mediterranean chameleon was 71.2 individuals, and the maximum number of Bell’s Dabb lizard was 39.6 individuals, all in Marrakesh.

We recorded small numbers of desert monitor lizards, with one live individual in Meknes, two live individuals in Marrakesh, five stuffed in Sale, and four stuffed in Fez. One vendor had a bottle with liquid in which he claimed there were monitor lizard parts, advertised as Sahara Medicine, but we were unable to verify whether or not the species was indeed bottled. Desert monitor lizard parts were said to increase virility.

We observed Egyptian cobras, puff adders and other unidentified snakes in Marrakesh (81 live specimens) and in Meknes (14 specimens) only. We were not able to determine how the snakes were used when alive, although they may have been displayed to draw in the crowds. We saw African rock python skins in eight of the 20 cities. The largest numbers we observed were in Marrakesh (122), Fez (32), and Rabat (17). We observed 52 Nile crocodiles, either as skins (27) or as stuffed specimens (25) and we observed the highest numbers in Fez (18) and Marrakesh (22). African rock python skins have been used as relief for asthma, but it is unclear what medical uses skins or the stuffed crocodiles have.

International trade in pythons and crocodiles into Morocco

African rock pythons and Nile crocodiles are not (or no longer) native to Morocco, and must have been imported from countries to the south or southeast of Morocco. Morocco has never reported any imports of African rock pythons to the CITES Secretariat (i.e., there are no recorded imports in the CITES trade database), but several West African countries reported the export of African rock python to Morocco between 1986 and 2007 (Guinea, one live individual in 1986; Sudan, six skins in 1991; Chad, three skins in 2000, and Niger, 62 live individuals in 2002 and 806 skins in 2000–2007). If the skins observed in the markets in 2013–2014 were indeed part of these imports, then some of them must have been imported in 2007 the latest. Morocco reported the import of four live Nile crocodile for a zoo in 1999 to the CITES Secretariat, but several countries reported the export of Nile crocodile to Morocco between 1991 and 2007. If the skins and stuffed crocodiles observed in the markets in 2013–2014 were indeed part of these imports, then some of them must have been imported in 2007 at the latest.