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Andy C. Highfield and Jane R. Bayley

Both Morocco and Tunisia possess a varied and fascinating herpetofauna. Unfortunately, in both countries, the first introduction to reptiles most visitors experience is when they encounter animals being offered for sale.
Sometimes, reptiles are collected specifically for sale to tourists - this is a major problem, especially in Tunisia - but there are also many long-standing traditional forms of exploitation.

Folk medicine and magic

Folk-medicine using herbs and animal parts is often the only form of medical treatment readily available in rural North African society, and a belief in magic and witchcraft is also widespread. Many of these beliefs have changed little in centuries. Most herbal practitioners are familiar with an extremely wide range of plants possessing medicinal qualities and the herb seller's stall is always one of the most colorful in the entire souk, or traditional market. A vast array of carefully arranged spices, oils, perfumes, medicinal herbs and magical accessories is typically on offer. Many of the herbal remedies are based upon a sound knowledge and understanding of a plant's chemical properties, and are surprisingly effective. Other, less well-founded beliefs, are attached to many animal components. It is therefore not surprising to encounter a variety of reptiles playing a role in this ancient system.


The chameleon, Chamaeleo chamaeleon, is often sold from traditional herbalists and spice stalls in souks. It is widely believed that this enigmatic creature possesses considerable powers of magic. In many places, the chameleon, although entirely harmless, is also greatly feared. It is widely accepted, for example, that its bite is invariably fatal. As a result, many people kill chameleons on sight. Wives who fear that their husbands may be straying often resort to the use of concealed chameleon meat or bones in their husband's food in the belief that this will restore his fidelity! The diet of chameleons themselves is also widely misunderstood, many stall-holders insisting that the creatures feed only upon mint leaves. Their true - insectivorous - nature is rarely recognised. As a consequence, few survive in captivity for long. A substantial number of chameleons are collected every year to supply the folklore and traditional medicine markets in Morocco; a brief survey of just one medium-sized souk revealed a total of 23 animals being offered for sale at two separate stalls. Writing in 1814, in 'An account of the empire of Morocco', Jackson commented:

'Various medicinal effects are attributed to the flesh of the camelion; and many whimsical effects are attributed to fumigation with it when dried; debilitated persons have recourse to it, and it is accordingly sold in all the drug shops at Marocco, Fas and other places…"

Little has changed in almost 200 years, as a visit to Fes today will readily confirm!

In Tunisia, it is also a traditional practice to slaughter a chameleon and bury it in the foundations of new buildings as a protection against the 'evil eye', or bad luck. The chameleon is also believed, in some places, to be a strong foe of snakes, which it attacks and kills in the following manner; the chameleon proceeds along the bough of a tree, beneath which the serpent sleeps. Placing itself immediately above the snake's head, the chameleon discharges a glutinous thread of saliva, which, upon contact with the snake soon kills it.


Although rarely used for medicinal or magical purposes, skinks are often feared, and as a result may be killed whenever they are encountered. This applies especially to Chalcides spp. which move in a manner similar to that of a snake, or the larger species such as Eumeces algeriensis which are mistakenly believed to possess a deadly bite.

Tortoises and terrapins

Although tortoises and terrapins do have uses in traditional medicine and magic in Morocco and Tunisia, the numbers utilised are limited compared to their exploitation for tourist souvenirs. Traditional beliefs about tortoises and terrapins vary considerably from one locality to another. It is generally agreed, however, that these animals should not be eaten routinely as their coprophageous, or dung-eating, habits render them 'unclean' under Islamic tradition. Their eggs and flesh may be consumed as a medication for stomach complaints or as a treatment for fevers, however - a belief with a widespread following throughout North Africa and the Middle East. The blood of a tortoise is also believed to be a sure cure for warts. In some villages, it is believed that tortoises are dangerous, especially to children, and that a child hearing their hiss when disturbed may go blind. In such villages, tortoises are often killed whenever found, usually by crushing with a heavy rock. Other villages look upon tortoises with more favour, however, and believe that the tortoise's magic is stronger than that of serpents. Where this belief is prevalent tortoises are often kept as pets in the hope that their presence will discourage snakes from entering the house. Terrapins in particular are believed to play host to powerful djinns, or water spirits, especially those living in the vicinity of sacred springs. It is considered extremely bad luck to harm such a terrapin.


The larger lizards, such as Agama impalearis, Trapelus mutabilis and Uromastyx acanthinurus (the spiny-tailed lizard) are all generally believed to possess a poisonous bite and as such are widely feared. They also feature in many folklore and magical recipes. A stuffed Uromastyx is one of several curious objects which traditionally decorates the herb and spice vendor's stall. In the south of Morocco, infant's feeding bottles are also traditionally made from this species. A number of very curious beliefs surround the desert monitor, Varanus griseus. Some desert tribesmen believe that this lizard harbours the souls of their ancestors, and in such regions the animal is regarded as sacred, and is not harmed. The Tuaregs also believe that its head is a potent talismen against snake bites. In most other regions, however, few positive opinions are to be found and it is killed on sight. Most people seem to believe that the desert monitor is extremely aggressive and that it can jump to a height of several feet, to deliberately bite a man in the face. Even a blow from the lash of its tail may have serious consequences, resulting in sterility or internal bleeding. Hungry Varanus griseus are also said to attack fully grown camels!


All snakes, without exception, are greatly feared by ordinary people and no distinction whatever is drawn between venomous and non-venomous species. Snakes are invariably killed whenever they are found.
Snake-charming has, of a course, long been associated with Morocco and North Africa. The species most frequently employed are Egyptian cobras (Naja haje), vipers (Vipera lebetina) and the puff-adder (Bitis arietans). Snake charmers usually appear at the main open-air markets, or souks, and rapidly gather a large crowd. Contrary to popular belief, this is not usually an activity aimed primarily at tourists, except in coastal resorts or in major tourist destinations. Modern-day snake charmers usually employ a battery-operated public address system through which they exhort their audience to purchase small pamphlets containing magic formulae for protection from snake-bite or other magical charms. The audience is regularly challenged to step forward and approach the snakes; "25 Dirhams if anyone dares to touch these dangerous snakes!". Despite 25 Dirhams (approximately $3) being equivalent to a day's wages for many, this offer is never taken up. More snakes are produced from a series of boxes or sacks, are roughly handled by the charmer and his family, and once again the effectiveness of the spells in the booklet being sold is loudly advertised. An assistant moves within the crowd gathering handfuls of money in exchange for the book.
Close examination of the snakes reveal the charmer's secret. The mouths of the snakes are carefully stitched closed with fine twine. Just enough of a gap is left to allow the snake's tongue to flicker though. As it is an almost universal belief that the venomous bite is delivered by the forked tongue, this deception is entirely effective. Snakes thus treated frequently develop fatal mouth infections, and are, of course, unable to feed. They survive long-enough to provide a good spectacle, however, and when obviously ill are disposed of and replaced by freshly caught specimens.
In tourist destinations, such as the famed Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakech, literally dozens of snake charmers ply their trade. The unwary tourist who takes a photograph of these activities is likely to find themselves on the receiving end of very aggressive demands for $20 or more for each picture unless a more agreeable rate is negotiated in advance!

Utilisation of reptiles for tourist souvenirs

In the south of the Morocco, it is a common sight to encounter sellers of Uromastyx acanthinurus by the roadside. The lizards are usually tied with string, and are frequently held dangling, at arm's length. Dried or stuffed examples are also encountered. In Tunisia, large numbers of skinks and snakes are killed, sun-dried, and crudely mounted in presentation boxes for sale to tourists, along with even larger numbers of scorpions. Tortoises, however, form the major part of the souvenir market. Two particular forms of utilisation are especially common, and can be found in shops everywhere in Morocco, decorative fire-bellows using either one or two carapaces each and decorative banjo-like musical instruments, each using a single carapace as the resonator.

Raxworthy (1983) in his report on the herpetofauna of Cap Rhir, Morocco, following a month-long expedition to the country, stated:

"The scale of production for tortoise banjos was clearly quite substantial. Most souvenir shops would have on display between 10 and 20 of these items and may have more in stock. In Agadir, Marrakech and Tangier there were a very large number of shops selling these banjos. By some rough calculations the number of banjos seen on the expedition was about 1,500"

The intervening years have regrettably seen little evidence of any decline in the trade. Local people report that banjos made from carapaces are not a traditional item and that the trade began as a means of utilising the corpses of tortoises which perished prematurely during the bulk live export era (1947-1976). Some shops offer similar instruments made from gourds or from ceramic bowls. Trade in these sustainable and cruelty-free alternatives should be encouraged. That the trade in tortoise-derived souvenirs is having an extremely damaging effect upon surviving tortoise populations is beyond doubt and improved legislation to protect tortoises, together with education efforts aimed at persuading tourists not to purchase such objects, must rank as a major conservation priority within Morocco.
According to Jackson's account, published in 1814, land tortoises "abound in Barbary and in Suse (modern spelling = Souss), where, in the afternoon of a hot day, one may collect a dozen in the course of an hour". The present day herpetologist would be fortunate to encounter the same quantity in a week……
In Tunisia, tortoise exploitation is extremely widespread, with both live and dead specimens on open sale in practically every tourist centre in the country. Local laws exist which prohibit this in theory, but in practice these laws are never enforced. Tunisia is also a "wholesale" source for many illegally collected animals which are subsequently smuggled into Europe.
Whilst most traditional forms of utilisation do not at the present time form a direct threat to the survival of species, growing human populations are increasing the demand for such products. In combination with other pressures, such as habitat loss and the increased mechanisation of agriculture, however, even traditional forms of utilisation pose a threat in the long term. It is only by improving the public's understanding of reptiles that age-old beliefs can gradually be replaced by an awareness of these animal's vital role in the ecosystem. The harmless nature of most species also needs to be stressed, together with accurate information on how to avoid bites from venomous species and how to treat such bites should they occur. Fear and folklore needs to be displaced by factual knowledge. Public education, especially in schools and colleges is a high priority, and several such programs are now being undertaken.
The impact of tourism is more acute. Very large numbers of reptiles, tortoises in particular, are presently being exploited for the sole purpose of supplying visitors with souvenirs or illegal pets. Again, public education is important, but this must be combined with effective deterrents aimed at illegal collectors and traders. If we are to preserve the unique herpetofauna of North Africa for future generations, these problems must be faced now, before it is too late.


  • Akhmisse, Mustapha (1985) Medecine, Magie et Sorcellerie au Maroc. Casablanca. 253 pp.
  • Highfield, A.C. and Bayley, J. R (1996) The trade in tortoise-derived souvenir products in Morocco. Traffic Bulletin 16 (1):33-35.
  • Jackson, J. G. (1814) An Account of the Empire of Morocco. 3rd Edition. London. 325 pp.
  • Raxworthy, C. J., Rice, S. Smith, D. and Claudius, F. (1983) A study of the reptile fauna of Cap Rhir, Morocco. University of London Natural History Society.