ATLANTA— This weekend Whigham, Ga., hosts its annual “rattlesnake roundup” — a lethal and cruel contest in which hunters compete for prizes by capturing rare eastern diamondback rattlesnakes to be displayed and then sold for their meat and skins. As it has for the past two years, the Center for Biological Diversity today presented a petition with more than 50,000 signatures to the Whigham Community Club asking that the state’s only remaining roundup be replaced by a wildlife-friendly festival where no snakes are killed.
All of Georgia’s other roundups have abandoned the outdated practice of removing rare rattlers from the wild. Three years ago Claxton, Ga., replaced its roundup with the Claxton Rattlesnake and Wildlife Festival, which displays captive rattlesnakes, along with many other educational wildlife exhibits. The new wildlife festival in Claxton received a boost in attendance and high praise from environmental groups, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, biologists and others who have lobbied for years to end rattlesnake roundups.
“People are fascinated by the rare rattlers, and so am I,” said Collette Adkins Giese, a biologist and attorney at the Center who works to protect rare reptiles and amphibians. “I understand that folks attending the Whigham event want to see snakes, but this cruel hunting contest must end. Whigham could display captive snakes instead of getting hunters to catch rare wild snakes and sell them for slaughter.”
Although this once-common species continues to be pushed toward extinction by hunting pressure, habitat loss and road mortality, at least four states (Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma and Alabama) still hold lethal roundups. Analysis of data from four roundups in the southeastern United States shows a steady decline in the weights of prizewinning eastern diamondbacks and the number collected.
In 2011 the Center — along with allies and Dr. Bruce Means, an expert on the eastern diamondback rattlesnake — filed a petition to protect eastern diamondbacks under the Endangered Species Act. In 2012 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that the venomous snake may deserve a place on the list of protected species and initiated a full status review
“The eastern diamondbacks targeted by the Whigham roundup are rapidly disappearing all across the southeastern United States, and in some states they’ve more or less vanished,” said Adkins Giese. “I hope that Whigham roundup sponsors will soon realize that they don’t need to kill these rare animals to have a successful community festival."
The eastern diamondback is the largest rattlesnake in the world. Adults are typically 4 to 5 feet long and weigh 4 to 5 pounds, but a big snake can reach 6 feet in length and weigh 12 pounds or more. Scientific studies over the past decade have documented range-wide population declines and significant range contractions for the eastern diamondback.
People fear rattlesnakes, but in reality eastern diamondbacks pose a very small public-safety risk. The snakes are certainly venomous, but more people are killed every year by lightning strikes and bee stings. In fact, the majority of snake bites occur when humans try to handle or kill snakes — so rattlesnake roundups themselves endanger public health by encouraging the public to do just that. Still, malicious killings by those who perceive the snakes as a threat are contributing to its decline.