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

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Generalities of the trade and its uses

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We show a sustained availability and significant trade in reptiles throughout Morocco to meet the demand for traditional medicine. We observed Mediterranean chameleon, Bell’s Dabb lizard, and spur-thighed tortoises in the hundreds. Our turnover data suggest that the demand for traditional medicine is responsible for the extraction of possibly more than a thousand Mediterranean chameleons and Bell’s Dabb lizards every year. We think that the way we measured turnover is conservative (i.e., checking a small number of shops over four-week periods is probably not enough to capture the intricacies of a dynamic market) and that real numbers of reptiles sold for medicinal purposes on an annual basis may be considerably more. While the turnover data we collected gave us some insight in the dynamics of the reptile-for-medicine trade, it is clear that a more comprehensive understanding of the dynamics, both temporal and spatial, that govern the use of reptiles as sources for medicine is of paramount importance. This is all the more true given that such uses are seldom exclusively based on animals and usually also includes plants (Alves et al., 2013).

Our observations in the contemporary markets in Morocco suggest very similar uses of some of the more commonly traded reptiles compared to that what has been reported in the past. At the same time some very specific uses are mentioned by earlier visitors to the country that were not recorded by us. Thus, Westermark (1926) noted that tortoise carapaces when burned and the smoke inhaled could cure a person who had become a victim of witchcraft. Tortoise carapaces, again when burned, can also be used by a married woman for taming her rowdy and quarrelsome husband (Westermark, 1926). Tortoise carapace may also be used for trembling hands, insomnia, and anxiety (Akhmisse, 1985). Westermark (1926) noted that contact with the blood or urine of a tortoise can cause warts (which in turn can be cured by applying the blood of a hedgehog), but, according to Highfield and Bayley (2007), its blood is a sure cure for warts.

Now and in the past, Mediterranean chameleons have a wide range of uses and are used to cure a variety of illnesses, including, according to many older sources, ones that are linked to witchcraft and warding off the evil eye (Jackson, 1810; Leared, 1876; Westermarck, 1926; Fogg, 1938, 1941; Akhmisse, 1985). Dried chameleon cooked in butter and eaten in small quantities, or when burned and the smoke inhaled, is considered a remedy against sickness, nausea, and debility. We were informed that burning chameleons would guard against bad luck and combat curses wished upon one by another person. A tonic infused with a chameleon can be used as a cure for fever. When charred and pounded, a chameleon is a remedy for skin abscess, and applied externally it is a cure for insect stings or bites. Meziane (2003) noted that the flesh of a chameleon was used to prevent or to remedy female sterility, frigidity, and impotence in northern Morocco. Jackson (1810) noted that a chameleon split open alive was a common application to wounds and sores; we do not know whether this practice (splitting chameleons open alive) is still in vogue, but we did not observe it nor was it pointed out to us.

We were informed that Bell’s Dabb lizard, when burned, was helpful for your eyes and that keeping one in a new house brought good luck. Fogg (1941) reported that inhaling the smoke of a pounded and burned lizard is a remedy for a scorpion or snakebite as well as for sickness believed due to poisoning through having eaten bewitched food. In the south of Morocco, infants’ feeding bottles are traditionally made from dried Bell’s Dabb lizards (Highfield and Bayley, 2007). The only other country where Bell’s Dabb lizards (and indeed other Uromastyx lizards) are traded for medicinal purposes in a contemporary society appears to be Malaysia where there is an ongoing trade in especially their oil (Knapp, 2004; Ching and Chng, 2016). In Malaysia the products of Uromastyx lizards appear to target a Muslim audience as products are promoted as halal, a binding Islamic certification concerning the consumption of certain products or foods according to religious rules (Ching and Chng, 2016).

We recorded a limited number of uses for snakes and lizards other than Bell’s Dabb lizard. The Tuaregs believe that the head of a desert monitor lizard is a potent talisman against snakebites (Highfield and Bayley, 2007). According to Fogg (1941) snake skin has several uses. Inhaling the smoke of a pounded and burned snake, is a remedy for fever, for heart trouble, or for any kind of serious disease or affliction, and rubbed on the eyes of a person it is a remedy for watery eyes, or a preventive of such. Snake-fat is remedy for hemorrhoids.

Our survey suggests that in contemporary Morocco, there is still a need and a desire to use animal-based traditional medicine. Reptiles and/or their parts are believed to cure a range of ailments including sickness, nausea, fever, external wounds or bites, and, less frequently, anxiety, insomnia or fertility-related illnesses, in particular when the cause of these ailments is linked to witchcraft and warding off the evil eye. Most of the species we observed in trade were known to be used in Morocco for medicinal purposes (Jackson, 1810; Leared, 1876; Highfield and Bayley, 2007), and indeed as such have been included in a recent compendium of reptiles used in traditional folk medicine (Alves et al., 2008; 2013). Given that no non-African reptiles were observed during any of our surveys, we believe that the stuffed iguanas (an exclusively New World taxon) reported by Martin and Perry-Martin (2012) most likely refers to misidentified Bell’s Dabb lizards (or even North African eyed lizard, noting that we did not observe this species in trade). Besides their supposed role in healing, it is clear that the reptiles often have magical-religious significance, reflecting the different views of health and disease that exist amongst cultures; animal parts are used to prepare clinical remedies as well as to make amulets or charms used in magical diagnoses (Alves et al., 2008).

The popularity of reptile-based medicine, as well as its perceived efficiency, is influenced by cultural aspects, traditions, and social economic relations. Traditional folk medicine is widely available and affordable, and generally accessible to most people. While it is tempting to think that in contemporary societies it is to be largely confined to remote rural areas, our study shows that availability in cities (most if not all of them having one or several hospitals practicing evidence-based medicine) remains high.

It is clear that the trade in reptiles, protected or not, is poorly regulated in Morocco’s markets (Benardouze et al., 2004; Bergin and Nijman, 2014; Nijman et al., 2016). Either traders are unaware of the rules and regulations that preclude trade in protected species or they believe that the authorities allow them to continue to offer these species for sale without repercussions. While market data appear to have limited value in gauging off-take levels from populations in the wild, population data of many Moroccan reptiles are not robust enough to assure that collection of reptiles for the medicine trade does not have a detrimental effect. Unfortunately, Morocco’s track record with respect to environmental and species protection is far from reassuring. Morocco ranks relatively low on the Biodiversity and Habitat protection component of the global Environmental Performance Ranking as it ranks 134 out of 177 countries that were assessed in 2014 (Hsu et al., 2014). Compared to its neighbours, Morocco is ranked just above Tunisia (136), but below Mauretania (132), Algeria (130), Spain (101) and Portugal (83).

While we found a great number of similarities in the nature of the reptile trade between cities throughout Morocco, there are also some clear differences. In Fez and Casablanca, small numbers of species were on offer and these were mostly in the form of dried specimens, whereas in Marrakesh and Meknes a large variety of species was available and these included a larger number of live animals. What was common in these four markets, and indeed the other cities where we observed the reptile trade, is the openness of the trade.

Legality and regulation of trade

The spur-thighed tortoise and the three species of lizard we observed in trade are included on the list of protected species, precluding all trade in them, and all four plus the two identified species of snake are considered threatened at the national level (Franchimont and Saadaoui, 2001). Morocco is one of four African countries that have acceded to the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (Bern Convention). The Convention regulates species conservation by imposing restrictions on taking species from the wild and on exploitation. It furthermore constitutes a commitment to protect the habitat of species. The spur-thighed tortoise and the Mediterranean chameleon are included on Appendix II: Strictly Protected Fauna Species, and these may not be disturbed, captured, killed, or traded. Bell’s Dabb lizard and desert monitor lizard are included on Appendix III: Protected Fauna Species, and these species may only be hunted or otherwise exploited in exceptional instances.

In January 2011, Law No. 29-05 on the Protection of Species of Wild Flora and Fauna and their Trade was promulgated and adopted at national level (Bergin and Nijman, 2016), and can now be implemented. Included with this law is a list of protected species for which the importation, capture, sale, offer for sale, or killing is illegal without a specific license. Lawbreakers can be fined up to US$11,000 for illegal trade in selected species. Falsifying or misusing permits can lead to fines of up to US$5,500. However, our interpretation of the current law is that government inspectors are not allowed to enter shops to check for the presence of protected wildlife or wildlife products without permission from the owners (Martin and Perry-Martin, 2012). Martin and Perry-Martin (2012) further noted that current laws do permit government authorities to inspect and confiscate illegal wildlife cargo at the international land borders, airports and seaports, thus confirming the existence of an Airport Bias with the authorities failing to detect the majority of illicit trade (Phelps et al., 2010).

Morocco ratified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1976. Unfortunately, hitherto the implementing legislation does not meet all of the requirements of the Convention. Once Law No. 29-05 is signed and properly implemented, it is expected that Morocco’s legislation will meet the requirements. Almost all reptile species observed in trade are included on CITES Appendix II. A species is included on this appendix if there is a high likelihood that if trade is not closely controlled it may become threatened with extinction. Following the Convention, international trade in specimens of Appendix-II species may be authorized by the granting of an export permit or re-export certificate. Permits or certificates should only be granted if the relevant authorities (in Morocco Le Haut Commissaire aux Eaux et Forêts et à la Lutte Contre la Désertification, known as Eaux et Forêts) are satisfied that certain conditions are met, above all that trade will not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild. It is encouraging that we did not observe any reptiles for medicinal purposes for sale in the Spanish cities of Ceuta or Melilla nor in the Moroccan cities of Fnideq or Beni Nsar, bordering Ceuta and Melilla, suggesting that the flow of wildlife from Morocco to Europe via this route is either not open or at least is small.

Morocco is not unique in its struggle against the illegal wildlife trade, and reptiles are traded the world over with and without permits. In a recent review, drawing on examples from the global trade in reptiles for the pet market, Auliya et al. (2016) concluded that “There are limited resources in many regions that result in under-staffed national authorities. This in turn provides the conditions necessary to circumvent national and international regulations. Better implementation of current regulations, including a checks and balances approach as well as strengthening of enforcement is necessary” thus clearly echoing our experiences in Morocco. In the foreseeable future it can be expected that reptiles will continue to be traded in many of the market towns included in our survey. In light of recent developments in terms of improved legislation and given the commitment Morocco has expressed through international treaties (CITES, Bern Convention) there is some hope for optimism with respect to curbing the illegal trade in protected and globally threatened reptiles. However, these regulations will not be effective without increased enforcement and, crucially, enforcement actions that extend to all levels of the judiciary from local police officers to judges in the highest courts.