Chinese woman's online snake purchase proves deadly

BEIJING - A Chinese woman who had hoped to make traditional snake wine died after being bitten by a venomous serpent which she ordered from an online shopping portal, sparking a heated debate on the sale of live animals through e-commerce platforms in China.

The 21-year-old unidentified woman from the northern province of Shaanxi died last Tuesday (July 17), eight days after being bitten by the many-banded krait, the official Xinhua news agency reported. She was known in local media reports by the pseudonym Xiao Fang.

Her mother, known only as Madam Qi, was quoted as telling local media she was not aware of the snake until the daughter got bitten on July 9.

"Mom, I was bitten by a snake, please take me to the hospital," her daughter had said in what would be her last words. She fell into a coma in hospital and never woke up.

It was only after the mother checked her daughter's phone that she realised the snake had been bought several days earlier through an online shopping platform. The seller was based in Guangdong province in southern China.

"How could a live venomous snake be sold online and transported across half the country to my daughter's place in Shannxi province?" the mother had asked in comments carried by state broadcaster CGTN.

"Who is responsible for my daughter's death?"

The victim had bought the snake on Zhuanzhuan, an e-commerce platform backed by Chinese internet heavyweight Tencent, from a seller in the southern province of Guangdong.

A staff member from Zhuanzhuan said earlier that dangerous animals such as venomous snakes and scorpions were not allowed to be sold via the platform's app, and they are immediately removed when discovered.

Mr Sun Quanhui, chief scientist at World Animal Protection, said the snake the woman bought is classified as a wild animal under state-level protection, and that online sales of the species are illegal.

"Selling wildlife online, especially species under protection, is easier to get away with than face-to-face trades, and so this poses a great challenge to investigators," Sun told China Daily.

The snake had been delivered by a local courier company, which told Xinhua it did not know what was in the box.

The order was verified as taken by an express company named the Best Express in China.

The safety of online shopping and delivery systems came under the spotlight as a result of the tragic incident. The story sparked calls for the relevant parties to take greater responsibility in regulating the trade of live animals via e-commerce platforms.

Online platforms are banned from trading in wildlife and administrators quickly take down such postings.

But customers can turn to smaller platforms like Zhuanzhuan with less oversight, reported Agence France-Presse.

E-commerce has boomed in China, led by major player like Alibaba's Taobao platform which handle billions of dollars in orders for everything from everyday items to the bizarre.

One irate commentator @Dongdong, penning a message on the Chengdu Economic Daily's Weibo page, urged greater oversight on the trade "or one day, we can buy nuclear weapons online".

More than 10,000 comments and 30,000 likes were generated by story. Chinese netizens are divided on who should be held responsible for the woman's death.

Some online users sympathised with the delivery man.

"The job can be too dangerous if people deliver bombs, shit, and snakes," wrote @Putaopupu.

Some argued that the tragedy was caused by the victim in the first place, with @Luluju saying: "The woman was died out of her own ignorance. She should not blame others."

The delivery man who delivered the snake said he did not know what was inside the delivery box.

"If I had noticed, I would have refused him without hesitation," said the deliveryman.

"I deliver hundreds of packages every day. I don't even know what's inside the box."

The victim had planned to make a traditional medicinal wine, her mother told Xinhua. Some reports said the daughter later decided to keep the snake as a pet.

Snake wine is typically made by infusing whole snakes in alcohol, with the resulting beverage said to have an invigorating effect.

Media reports said the reptile managed to escape afterwards, but local forestry officials later said it was found near the woman's home.