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ZISIQIAO VILLAGE, China (Reuters Life!) - This sleepy village nestled in the heart of vast farmland in China's eastern Zhejiang province hides a deadly secret.
A step into the homes of any of the farming families here brings visitors eye-to-eye with thousands of some of the world's most feared creatures -- snakes, many of them poisonous.
Cobras, vipers and pythons are everywhere in Zisiqiao, aptly known as the snake village, where the reptiles are deliberately raised for use as food and in traditional medicine, bringing in millions of dollars to a village that otherwise would rely solely on farming.
"As the number one snake village in China, it's impossible for us to raise only one kind of snake," said Yang Hongchang, the 60-year-old farmer who introduced snake breeding to the village decades ago.
"We are researching many kinds of snakes and the methods of breeding them."
In 1985, Yang started selling snakes he caught around the area to animal vendors. He soon began to worry that the wild snakes would run out and thus began researching on how to breed snakes at home.
Within three years, he had made a fortune -- and many other villagers decided to emulate his success.
Today, more than three million snakes are bred in the village every year by the 160 farming families.
Snakes are renowned for their medicinal properties in traditional Chinese medicine and are commonly drunk as soup or wine to boost the person's immunity.
Yang has now started his own company to make his business more formal and build a brand, and also to conduct research and development for his products, which range from dried snake to snake wine and snake powder.
"Our original breeding method has been approved and recognised by the province and the county. They see us as the corporation working with the farming families," Yang said.
"So the company researches on the snakes and they hand them over to the farms for breeding. They said this model was working very well."
The original breeding method was simply putting males and females together, but now meticulous research is done on how the snakes breed, how to select good females, investigation into their diet, and how to incubate eggs so survival rates rise.
With rising demand for snake products from restaurants and medicine halls due both to rising wealth and a government push for breeding the animals to be used in traditional medicine, Zisiqiao villagers are now boasting a annual income of hundreds of thousands of yuan per year.
Yang Xiubang, 46, has been raising snakes in his home for more than twenty years and said his annual income has been steadily rising.
"The demand for traditional Chinese medicine is quite high in China," he said.
"After we finish producing the dried snake, most of them are sent to medicine factories. This also includes snake livers and snake gallbladders."
Yang added snake products from the village are currently being exported globally to countries such as the United States, Germany, Japan and South Korea.
Closer to home, snake products from the village are sold in the bustling Zhejiang city of Hangzhou, where the Hangzhou Woai Company offers a plethora of goods including snake powders.
"Each part of the snake is treasured," said store manager Gao Chenchang.
"China has a strong snake culture, there are a lot of people -- like in Guangzhou -- who like to eat snakes."
With such a special product, Zisiqiao's million dollar business is the envy of other rural communities. But Yang Hongchang said competition is stiff from other breeders who are rearing snakes on a larger scale than his village.
In addition, rearing the snakes comes with obvious risks.
The snake farmers said they had been bitten, some by deadly snakes, and were saved only by injection of anti-venom medicine.
Yang Wenfu, 55, gave up rearing species of venomous vipers after being bitten by one of them earlier in his career.
"After that, I no longer dared to raise vipers. I am still scared today," he said, adding that his arm grew hugely swollen after the bite.
"Life is valuable and making money is secondary."
Additional reporting by Reuters Television Shanghai; editing by Elaine Lies