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

To refer to this article use this url:

Generalities of the trade and its uses

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.