This paper situates concerns for conservation of aquatic snakes and livelihood sustainability in Cambodia within a social–ecological systems context and thereby presents a challenge to conventional species-based conservation programmes. Fishing for low-value water snakes has become a widespread activity within the floating communities of Tonle Sap Lake in the last 20 years in response to new market opportunities, provided primarily by a crocodile farming industry. The scale and intensity of this new form of exploitation and reports of declines in catch per fisher have highlighted this activity as a conservation concern, yet its role within local livelihood strategies was previously unknown. We show that it is of increasing importance to the less well-off, and is linked to higher incomes within this group, where it potentially reduces their vulnerability to fluctuations and declines in fish catches. It is particularly important as a means to smooth seasonality of incomes in this flood pulse-driven social–ecological system. We argue that shifts between snake-hunting and fishing, as a market-driven adaptive livelihood strategy by the poor, may be more compatible with wider ecosystem conservation and development goals than alternatives such as increased fishing effort or converting floodplain habitats for seasonal agriculture.