5 July 2022
Phnom Penh — Meng Sarath grabbed a bunch of finger-sized striped zebra crawling around hyacinth roots, explaining they were the key to his livelihood after the Covid-19 crisis ended his job as a hotel cleaner in Sihanoukville.
Sarath is the main Cambodian breeder of Subsessor bocourti – known as chan l’mom in Khmer – for the Vietnamese restaurant market. He also sells it to farmers who want to raise snakes as a family business.
Within three years of starting his hospitality career, Sarath, 34, has returned to his hometown of Kaam Samnur, Luok Dik District, Kandal District. He became interested in snake breeding, as he knew there was a demand for it in the Vietnamese market.
He went to Vietnam and learned how to raise snakes and then decided to invest nearly 2 million riyals ($500) to buy snakes and build ponds. He started by breeding 400 pythons, which cost about 12,000 riyals each head.
“In my area, no one else has raised them yet, and that was one of the reasons why I invested in this industry. In the past two years, I have sold 3,000 to 4,000 pythons.
Although snake breeding is a legitimate private business, some species are not allowed to be raised without permission from the authorities.
Some types of wildlife are considered rare, said Suon Sovann, a spokesperson for the Forestry Department, according to Prakas No 020 PRK 2007 of the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which classifies wildlife species.
“Bringing snakes, flying snakes, lizards, deer, monkeys, swallows, etc., requires permission from the forest department,” he told the newspaper.
Although Chan l’mom has not been classified as an endangered species by management, Sovann has not specified whether the general public can breed the non-venomous snake without prior permission.
Sarath initially built two brick ponds, a four-by-four-meter pond for keeping his stock of salable snakes, and one three-by-four-meter for breeding new snakes. After doing some experiments, he divided each into two parts, adding one section for breeding and one for the smallest snakes.
The deepest ponds are more than a meter deep, they are planted with water-bearing. Breeding and snake ponds are shallow. Snakes are separated by size, because the largest snakes will eat their smaller siblings, if given the opportunity.
Although he had to invest a lot of seed capital in building ponds and procuring primary eels, Sarath insisted that feeding and caring for the eels was not a difficult task.
“I buy a small, low-quality fish to feed the eels. One kilogram of fish can feed 100 snakes. When the food is over, I add more. Oh, and I change the water once or twice a month.”
He said that snakes usually only eat every two or three days.
Sarath said Chan Lumum isn’t a dangerous species, but it can take up to a year for it to reach salable size. Its current market value is about 80,000 riyals per kilogram.
Generally, the python is sold when it grows to about 1.2kg, he said, adding that pythons weighing up to 1.5kg are usually kept as a breeder.
These snakes are a seasonal product, I harvest them only once a year. Currently, I sell 200 to 300 kg per year. As the harvest time approached, the Vietnamese merchants called me and said they would take all the snakes I had.
I think if I could produce 1,000 kg of eels, the Vietnamese would buy them all. But of course I’m not sure how that will affect the market value.
He sells some of his products to the local market. He says the demand is not high, but he expects it to grow.
Currently, Sarath has partnerships with four local restaurants – two in Phnom Penh and two in Preah Sihanouk – and local customers order 3 to 4 kg every half month. If domestic demand grows, though, more people will be interested in breeding.
“Last season, I bred 400 snakes and sold about 200 kg. The rest I kept for breeding,” he said.
He said that of the 200 kilograms of meat he sold, about 150 kilograms went to the Vietnamese maquite.
“I don’t think it’s because Cambodians don’t like eating snake meat. They may not have tried it, or are afraid that they are being serviced as an endangered or illegal species.”
He added that his favorite eel recipe is pickled lemongrass soup, but eels can be made into many other dishes, such as fried lemongrass eel.
He said that although the number of people ordering meat in restaurants was small, this suits them at the moment, because he cannot meet the demand if the orders increase too much.
He also said that he sold snakes to people who were also interested in raising them. He sold the little snakes for 10,000 riyals each.
“I admit that the price of 10,000 riyals seems exorbitant. But in Vietnam, the price can reach 12,000 riyals. In fact, I sold a few hundred to Vietnamese breeders.”
Nim Khun, 50, bought 150 pythons from Sarath. He carried them home in the town of Takhmau in three jars a little over a month ago.
He explained that in addition to farming, he thought he would try to breed snakes. Since he wasn’t familiar with the process, he wasn’t sure how snakes would work. Fortunately, he said, they were now growing well.
“It is not difficult to take care of them, because their food is small fish and snakes. I spend about 40,000 riyals a month on food,” he told the Washington Post.