Visiting China's 'snake village' of Zisiqiao

By Martin Patience
BBC News, Zisiqiao, China

media captionProfits rise in China's 'snake village' of Zisiqiao

It is a sleepy village with a deadly secret. A couple of decades ago, locals in Zisiqiao made a living from farming and fishing.

But now they rear snakes - among them pythons, vipers and cobras. There are three million snakes in total - leaving the locals outnumbered by the serpents by a ratio of almost 3,000 to one.

Step into any of the more than 100 snake farms in the village and you will see the snakes slithering about in small wooden boxes piled on top of each other.

During the summer months, you can see concrete pits full of some of the most dangerous snakes in the world. One snake is particularly feared here - the so-called "five-step snake".

The snake is so deadly, say villagers, that if you are bitten the furthest you will get is five steps before dying.

image captionThis Lunar New Year brings in the Year of the Snake

The reptiles are reared for their meat, which is sold to restaurants, and their body parts, which are highly sought after in traditional Chinese medicine.

And with Chinese Year of the Snake about to start - Chinese New Year begins this weekend - locals are expecting a profitable 12 months.

"In the year of snake we hope our company's profits will double," says Yang Hongchang, the 61-year-old farmer who introduced snake breeding to the village decades ago.

"May the snake bring us prosperity and happiness."

Food and medicine

Mr Yang says he first caught wild snakes to cure a serious illness he suffered as a young man.

Spotting a business opportunity, he then turned his hand to breeding the snakes and quickly made a small fortune. Other villagers then followed his lead.

There are obvious risks in rearing snakes. Mr Yang says he knows of one man who died after being bitten by a poisonous snake.

image captionConsuming snakes and snake parts is believed by some to boost health

But with rising demand for snakes, the once poor village of Zisiqiao is now relatively wealthy, with many residents boasting revenue of tens of thousands of dollars.

"Domesticating snakes takes experience and technique," says Mr Yang, who says his business is now a multi-million dollar enterprise.

His company carries out research into improving the diet of snakes as well as investigating techniques for incubating eggs, so survival rates will increase.

image captionYang Hongchang sells his goods both domestically and overseas

Snakes are renowned for their medicinal properties in Chinese medicine. They are often drunk in a soup or even in wine to boost the patient's immune system.

At Mr Yang's snake farm, there is a shop selling an array of goods including snake powder.

While most of his business is done domestically, Mr Yang says he exports his products overseas to Japan and South Korea, as well as Germany and the US.

On his snake farm, I met one young man who had travelled hundreds of miles for treatment.

He says he was bed-ridden for three years. But after taking snake medicine for several months, he claimed, he could now walk.

"Snakes are my saviour," he said. "When I first came here I was scared of snakes but that's no longer the case."