Soldiers who drink snake blood and eat live geckos and scorpions in training sessions are risking catching infectious coronavirus-type diseases and even causing a new pandemic, campaigners have warned.
Thousands of troops from around the world take part each year in Cobra Gold joint military exercises in Thailand, where they are encouraged to kill and eat live creatures for “survival” drills, according to animal rights group Peta.
At last year’s event, American soldiers were filmed skinning and eating live geckos, drinking blood from a decapitated snake and biting into lizards and scorpions.
They then passed the carcasses round for others to gnaw at.
Some participants were also recorded killing chickens with their bare hands, and one also appeared to eat a tarantula, Peta said.
The government says no UK troops take part in field training at Cobra Gold, and no UK forces were involved in last year’s drill.
But Peta has written to the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, urging him to use his influence to call on the organisers to drop the live animal exercises, replacing them with “more effective and ethical” animal-free training methods.
The group says these practices pose a risk of spreading zoonotic diseases like coronavirus, endangering the troops involved and the public.
Condemning the “ritualistic” and “barbaric” killing and consumption of animals, Peta also says it is driving species already under threat further towards extinction.
The snakes involved last year were king cobras, listed by the IUCN as vulnerable, meaning they face “a high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future”.
“Shipping military personnel to Thailand to drink the blood of beheaded snakes is the kind of absurdity that could spark the next pandemic,” says Peta’s science policy manager, Julia Baines.
“The crude killing of animals during this annual drill not only risks public health and endangers species vulnerable to extinction, including the king cobra, but also disgraces our troops.”
Scientists suspect the virus that caused Covid-19 originated in bats and was transmitted to humans through other animals.
The letter says: “The crude killing of animals during this annual drill dishonours troops, risks public health, and endangers species vulnerable to extinction.”
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The UK contributes a small number of military planners to Exercise Cobra Gold.
“We do not contribute troops to the field training component of the exercise, and no UK forces were involved in the drill highlighted by the Peta campaign.”
It is understood that two military planners went to last year’s exercise, and one will go to this year’s exercise, in August.