JAKARTA, Indonesia – It is 9:22 pm in Mangga Besar, in West Jakarta. The grungy streets of the red-light district have come alive, in all its noisy, filthy glory.
On the side of the road, a stretch of food stalls is dimly lit by street lamps. Printed on large tarpaulins draped down one side of the stalls are photos of what its vendors sell: snakes.
SNAKE MENU. Stalls in Jakarta sell snakes and other animals to satay. Photo by Natashya Gutierrez
Tourists and locals come to Jalan Mangga Besar for women and nightclubs and karaoke, but they also come here for a taste of snake. Barbed-wire cages sit on the ground by the stalls, containing live spitting cobras. The cobras, some coiled, some hissing, are piled on top of each other.
One stall is bustling with activity, with a short line of motorcycle drivers waiting for orders to deliver to their customers. Ibu Liea, the vendor, takes the snake a customer selects, and puts it on a chopping board with her bare hands. She lets it stand upright, the snake displaying its hood.
She warns customers not to come too close lest it spits venom at our face – a spray into the eye can cause blindness. She then puts its head between a clasp and holds it still, as the rest of its body continues to slither.
In a swift motion, she chops the snake’s head off.
It is too quick for the snake to realize it is dead. The headless snake continues to wiggle, while the chopped head itself also keeps moving, separated from its body, its eyes wide open. Ibu Liea squeezes the snake’s blood into a cup. It is a deep, dark red.
“This is useful for rheumatism, gout, back pain,” she said, as she tightened her grip on the snake, extracting the final drops.
A customer piped in. “It helped cure him,” he said, motioning to his friend. “Four times. Before, he had pus oozing all over his legs.”
Customers have a choice whether to mix the snake’s liver into the cup, or to take it separately. The blood can be mixed with Chinese herbs to make it warmer, or Kool-Aid to sweeten the taste.
Customers say the cobra blood tastes unusual, its consistency thin. It is not unpleasant, or bitter. They say it is warm down the throat, and goes down easily.
The skin is then peeled off the snake and its bones removed by Ibu Liea’s nimble fingers. There is a visible, massive scar that crawls up her forearm.
“This was because of a snake bite,” she said. “It was very unfortunate. It happened in 2008. It hurt a lot. I was hospitalized for 2 months. My chest hurt a lot too.”
The skinned snake is chopped up into small pieces, skewered onto sticks, and barbequed over a hot grill. It is served as snake satay, dripping in peanut sauce and spices.
It tastes like chicken, according to customers, but the meat is chewier.
CUP OF RED. The snake blood is drained into a cup, while the liver (on the teacup) can be eaten separately or mixed with the drink. Photo by Natashya Gutierrez
The whole meal costs about Rp 80,000-130,000, or $6 – $10 for the blood, and Rp 40,000 or $3 for the satay.
Ibu Liea said the earnings from her snake business have provided well for her family over the years. “I’ve been doing this for decades, since my kid was small until now. He’s now in his 8th semester of university, from the profits of selling snakes."
SKINNED. The skin is peeled from the snake before it is chopped up, skewered and put on the grill. Photo by Natashya Gutierrez
Snake is not common fare in Indonesian dishes, but it is readily available, as it is in other parts of Asia like Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Thailand and the Philippines – although it is prepared differently in every country. In Vietnam, they eat a beating heart. In China, they are used in snake soup.
But in all these countries, snake is eaten because it is believed to have healing powers and is said to enhance male sexual performance.
Snakes for pleasure
Indonesia has a rather unusual relationship with snakes, having found various ways to use the typically fear-provoking creature for their pleasure – despite the dangers.
The King Cobra for instance, the world’s longest venomous snake, is a favorite meal of wealthy Chinese businessmen. But the same snake is also used for entertainment.
King Cobra restaurant, a stone’s throw away from the Mangga Besar stalls, is a go-to for the wealthy, who fork out hefty amounts for the delicacy. A King Cobra is much larger and much more expensive than spitting cobras. They cost about Rp 800,000 or $80 per meter and can reach up to 5.7 meters long.
But the King Cobra is also a pet for some, specifically dangdut performers who use snakes for entertainment purposes.
Dangdut, a form of traditional Indonesian dance, is spiced up by incorporating snakes on stage. Performers use the cobra to match their “snake-style,” sexualized dancing – much to the crowd’s delight – even if they’ve proven fatal. At least one dancer has died after getting bitten by a King Cobra mid-performance. She died 45 minutes later. (READ: Performer keeps singing after cobra bites her on stage, then dies)
Some spa owners also have snakes for pets, using snakes for their massage services.
Pythons are used for a unique spa experience at Bali Heritage Spa also in Jakarta, wherein customers are treated to slithering fangless snakes on their back, while a professional masseuse performs a regular massage. The pythons are meant to get the customer’s adrenaline going, which is said to positively impact a customer’s metabolism.
MASSAGE. Pythons slither around a customer's body at a spa in Jakarta. Photo by AFP
Indonesia, with over 17,500 islands, is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, and has about 450 snake species, explaining its prevalence. And while many Indonesians care little about them, others who are fascinated by snakes consider the country a treasure trove when it comes to finding the most vivid snakes.
American Dan Mulleary, an avid reptile lover who has been coming to Indonesia for 8 years, said he flies all the way from his home in Los Angeles at least once a year and finds snakes here, to breed and sell in the United States. Mulleary gets his snakes from a breeding farm in Bogor, licensed to trade reptiles by the Indonesian government.
“In Indonesia, snakes are so diverse, so unique, many of them don’t occur in the rest of the world,” he said.
With snake meat, live snakes, and of course snakeskin in high demand both locally and abroad, does Indonesia have any conservation programs for snakes?
In Indonesia, wild harvest is allowed for abundant snake species – like spitting cobras – but the government sets quotas. For species with declining populations, quotas are significantly reduced. The King Cobra snake is among these vulnerable snake species, with a declining number in the wild.
QUOTAS. Spitting cobras are among those allowed for wild harvest, albeit with quotas. Photo by Natashya Gutierrez.
Trade quotas for snake species apply as well, not just for live exports but also for skins and meats. Exports are closely monitored by CITES, which oversees the international trade of wildlife between governments.
Mulleary said the trade of snakes from his experience, is strict and closely adhered to, especially upon entry to the United States.
“I am in the USA so all animals and documents are inspected closely upon arrival here so all trade is managed by several government agencies in both countries,” he said.
He said Indonesia constantly updates its export quotas at an annual basis, and consult breeding farm owners as well, to decide whether to reduce or add quotas based on recommendations.
Despite these efforts, however, illegal trade does still happen.
Live snakes are attempted to get smuggled through airports, by wrapping them around a person’s body or keeping them underneath their clothes – although these are less and less successful with the advancement of screening technology.
Quotas are essentially the only snake conservation program by the government. There is no law that prohibits the consumption of snakes or their use for commercial purposes like dancing or massages.
Reptile activists in Indonesia understand the challenge to get people to be more sympathetic towards snakes. For now, they want to ensure the quotas are met. They also want people to learn more about snakes, so they can treat them with respect.
Arbi Krisna, a member of Aspera Community, an Indonesian organization which aims to protect reptiles, said their goal is to spread more information and awareness about these animals.
He said he is aware that it would be practically impossible to ask people not to consume or sell snake meat “because it has been their source of income for decades.”
“The most we can do is educate people that when you take snakes for consumption, please take care of the ecosystem and their habitat. Do not just think about profits but also think that when hundreds are taken per month, it will lead to the extinction of the serpent,” he said, emphasizing the need to adhere to quotas.
MOST UNIQUE. Snake enthusiasts come to Indonesia to find the most diverse snakes to breed. Photo by Dan Mulleary
He said that while the cobra is not included in the protected species law, and because the government does not prohibit its consumption, it is important for locals to be aware of the effects of taking snakes from their regular habitat.
He also emphasized that “there is no real research that shows that snake meat has any special health or aphrodisiac properties.”
“People who eat snake meat should really consider the consequences of eating an important part of the food chain. They should consider when they eat a reptile, which usually eats rats, which are pests, they will be inconvenienced if the rat population explodes. Since they keep eating snakes which help restrain the rat population.”
As for Ibu Liea, when asked whether she feels bad about killing snakes right after she swiftly chopped its head off, she was as quick to respond.
“We don’t have any choice. This is how we get money. If I don’t do this, I couldn’t survive for years.” – Rappler.com