SNAKE merchants say they are on the slippery slope to bankruptcy and warm weather, poor quality meat and a rising awareness of nutrition could be to blame. Consumption of snakes - usually in soup - has dropped to its lowest level in decades, said Ching Pui, chairman of the Hong Kong and Kowloon Snake Merchants' Association. Business had fallen by as much as two-thirds for most of his 110 or so members since last year. 'I believe many of us will go out of business after going through the books,' said 59-year-old Mr Ching. 'This is the worst year in my 43-year career. It is a huge financial blow to us.' The number of snakes imported from China, Hong Kong's main source, has dropped sharply over the past two years. About 40,700 snakes have been imported this year, compared to 162,074 in the whole of 1993 and 165,993 in 1992. 'I think people still like to eat snakes but many say they need to save money to pay their mortgage,' said Mr Ching. Yung Kee Restaurant secretary Kam Man-ho said orders had been cancelled because some snake merchants supplied poor quality meat and the recent warm weather had cooled demand at his Central eatery. 'Chinese like to eat snake soup in winter time, but the temperature has constantly been above 20 degrees,' he said. 'I think it is one of the major causes in our restaurant ordering less snake meat.' Hong Kong Dietitians' Association secretary Susan Chung believed the rise in Hong Kong people's awareness of nutrition had also contributed to low snake consumption. 'There is no difference between consuming snake meat and pork, beef and chicken from a dietitian's point of view - but the price of snake is much higher,' said Ms Chung.