Searching for snakes: ball python hunting in southern Togo, West Africa
The ball python (Python regius) is the single most exported live CITES-listed species from Africa, with a large proportion of snakes being sourced from Togo, West Africa, officially via a system reported nationally as "ranching". This study represents the first in-depth review of ball python hunting being carried out by rural communities in Togo for nearly 15 years. Our approach, focused at the bottom of the trade chain, permitted extensive detailed data to be collected from hunters, and provides a unique insight into the practices, drivers and impacts associated with this type of large-scale commercial wildlife trade activity. We show that ball python hunting remains an economically valuable endeavour for these rural hunters. However, it also highlights a number of potential legal, conservation and animal welfare issues associated with the current hunting practices being carried out in Togo (and neighbouring range States) to supply the snake farms and ultimately the international exotic pet trade. Our findings suggest that the methods applied on the ground do not accurately reflect those being reported to national authorities and international regulatory mechanisms such as CITES. This irregular, if not illegal, trade may also be unsustainable, as suggested by hunters reporting that there are fewer ball pythons in the wild than there were five years previously. We recommend that additional scientific investigation (focusing on the size and status of the wild population), better management, and enforcement of regulations, are required to ensure that ball python populations are managed in a sustainable, legal and traceable way.