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The false promise of snake wine in Southeast Asia

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Snakes and alcohol have a surprisingly long and entwined history. The ancient Greeks used snake wine as a cure for retained placentas. In the past, European herbalists and natural healers mixed adders and calamus roots with vodka. In Brazil, snakes are steeped in cachaça (fermented sugar cane juice) and sold in the markets for religious purposes and as a cure for impotence, insect bites and rheumatism. And, in 2008, Texan authorities confiscated 411 bottles of vodka that contained baby rattlesnakes and arrested the man who was selling them because he didn't have a liquor license.

While alcoholic medicaments containing snakes have been used in different contexts across continents for centuries, the practice is now most common in Asia, in particular Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Laos, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam. When you walk along the streets or through the markets in Vietnam, it isn't unusual to find row upon row of bottled snake wine (known locally as ruou ran). Roadside stalls and age-old markets high up in the mountains, traditional pharmacies and modern chemists all sell bottles of snake wine. So do gift shops, bars, cafés, hotels and other outlets geared to tourists. The drink, which is based on traditional medicine, is made by placing a snake into a bottle and pouring in rice wine (although reportedly ethanol and vinegar are sometimes used, and even rubbing alcohol and formaldehyde, which pose serious health risks). Scorpions, geckos, centipedes and various herbs, such as ginseng, are often added for good measure.

Snake wine is variously touted as a cure for rheumatism, arthritis, lumbago, leprosy, excessive sweating, hair loss, dry skin, far-sightedness, exhaustion, flu, fever, pain and migraines, and as a general all-round tonic. Because snakes symbolise 'heat' and masculinity in Vietnamese culture, and are often associated with male potency, snake wine is also very popular and much coveted as a reputedly powerful aphrodisiac.

Traditional medicine has often used animals – or animal parts and products – as cures for various ailments, and reptiles are among the most popular sources of ingredients. Throughout the world, at least 284 reptile species are used in traditional folk medicine, and of these, 182 are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List, an indication that they are threatened with extinction.

Medicines extracted........

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