What Price That Snakeskin Handbag?

| 8th January 2013

An accessory with a serious price tag and sinister origin.

Anna Taylor reports on the highly lucrative illegal trade in Python skin which now threatens to overtake the tightly-controlled legal trade and warns if this happens, it will be catastrophic for the populations of these beautiful reptiles.
CITES controls are just not working

A report released last month by the International Trade Centre has raised concerns over many aspects of the snake skin trade, most notably high levels of illegal trading, plus concerns about the welfare and conservation of the species involved.

The report, entitled “The Trade in South-East Asian Python Skins”, was backed by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, (IUCN).

The authors used information gathered from interviews with exporters and importers, hunters, government officials, conservationists and vets to highlight the now urgent need for more control over a trade which is threatening the survival of pythons. 

Pythons in South-East Asia are traded for food and traditional Chinese medicine as well as for their skins, which are valued throughout the world. Nearly half a million python skins are exported every year, the vast majority being used to make luxury fashion accessories such as handbags, belts, wallets and shoes. One leather bag made from just half a skin can sell for up to £6,000.

The European fashion industry accounts for 96% of the python skin market, with the main importers being Italy, France and Spain. The leading manufacturers and retailers of python skins are the designer brands Hermes, Gucci and Prada.

Python skins are sourced mainly from Indonesia and Malaysia, although in recent years, Vietnam and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic have also become more prominent in the trade.

The python species traded most often from South-East Asia is the world’s longest snake, the Reticulated python, with nearly 350,000 skins exported annually. Around 100,000 Burmese python skins are exported each year, and Short-tailed python species account for around 80,000 annual exports.

Most pythons are captured from the wild, typically collected and processed by poor rural people who hunt them as an additional source of income.

It is a highly profitable trade, with the value of the python skin market estimated to be over £625 million (US$1 billion).The report, however, also highlighted the vast numbers of python skins that are traded illegally warning the black market trade has become so bad it may soon  equal and even overtake the legally-controlled operations.

Olivier Caillabet, programme officer with TRAFFIC in South-East Asia, and a co-author of the new report, said: “With potentially large mark-ups along the supply chain, there is a strong financial incentive for the illegal trade in python skins and considerable scope for traders to issue false permits.”

The trade in pythons and python products is allowed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), but with strict controls. CITES is a legally-binding agreement that aims to prevent over-exploitation of plants and animals through international trade, and is regulated and monitored by governments.

CITES controls are just not working

All countries in South-East Asia that export python skins are listed as Parties to CITES, but enforcement of the regulations is weak. A lack of monitoring and enforcement at customs means that illegal skins can go undetected and, if smugglers are caught, the penalties are so low that they are an insufficient deterrent.

According to the report, the system of export permits issued by CITES is being abused, as skins are easily hidden in shipments of legal skins. Traders can also mis-declare illegal skins as being from “captive-bred” snakes, “pre-convention” or “seized” (as these skins are allowed to be exported). What all this adds up to is that the controls implemented by CITES are just not working.

The problem of stockpiling skins in Singapore is also discussed in the report. The majority of python skins are initially exported to Singapore, with only a small proportion being exported directly to their final destination markets. The skins sent first to Singapore are then re-exported.

Since 2000, around a quarter of a million reticulated python skins are re-exported every year from Singapore in this way. However, not all the skins that are sent there are re-exported straight away. Instead, they may be stockpiled for re-exportation in the future. Although not illegal, the authors note that: “Traders in Singapore do not declare their stocks, making it difficult for authorities to know what stocks (and their origin) are being held. The presence of undeclared stocks provides an avenue through which illegally sourced skins can be mixed and re-exported with legally sourced skins.”

Clearly, with such high numbers of python skins being traded, the issue of whether or not this practice is sustainable is an important concern for the conservation of these snakes. More than 50% of female reticulated pythons slaughtered in Sumatra are not sexually mature. The same also appears true for Short-tailed pythons and Reticulated pythons captured in Malaysia.

The report states that “because many of the females collected are immature, they are unable to contribute to future generations and therefore population growth.” There is, however, not enough detailed evidence to assess the biological sustainability of the python harvests. In the past, studies assessing the abundance and population trends of pythons have used information provided by the hunters and traders themselves. Harvest quotas have also been based on previous harvest levels rather than accurate knowledge.

As pythons are cryptic, sedentary species that use concealment to ambush their prey, field studies are not easily undertaken. Instead, the report’s authors call for the sustainability of the python skin trade to be monitored at slaughterhouses, where a wealth of information on body sizes and maturity of the snakes means that they could provide “a focal point for the ongoing monitoring of the harvested population.”

Yet the slaughterhouses themselves pose yet another concern highlighted in the report, namely the welfare of the pythons. Increasingly, concerns have been raised over this issue, especially from the European Union. Methods of slaughter vary from country to country. In Indonesia, snakes are killed with a blow to the head using a hammer or mallet, deemed to be an acceptable and humane method.

In Malaysia, they are decapitated, definitely not an acceptable form of euthanasia, especially for reptiles as their low metabolism means that they can remain conscious for some time after removal of the head.

In Vietnam the situation is even worse. Live snakes have their mouths and anus sealed using rubber bands, then compressors are used to fill the snake with air, while the animal is still alive. They do this because the Vietnamese believe this to be less cruel than decapitation or concussion.

The new report raises many concerns regarding the future survival of South-East Asian pythons, and the lack of control in the trade of their skins. Nevertheless, it does not go so far as to recommend a blanket ban on the entire trade, fearing the impact this would have on the many rural people who depend upon it as an important source of income. It does, however, list a number of recommendations that should be implemented in order to drastically improve the current situation.

The problems surrounding welfare issues could be solved by instigating a universally acceptable form of slaughter and, along with the valuable information that can be collected at slaughterhouses, radio-telemetry studies should be conducted to gain a better understanding of the population density and habitat use of pythons.

The authors also call for a full inventory of existing stockpiles, and for skins to be directly imported from the country of origin (rather than via Singapore). They do not, however, recommend destroying stockpiled skins (as has happened with elephant tusks), because they believe this would serve only to further discourage traders from co-operating. Instead, they believe that these skins should be sold - along with confiscated skins – and that the moneies generated from these sales should be used to implement a ‘traceability system’.

This system should be developed by governments to complement the CITES permit system, allowing “identification of each individual skin through the chain of custody”, meaning that each individual skin used to make a product could be traced back to the slaughterhouse and its legitimacy verified.

The European fashion industry too should be pushing for the introduction of this system, as Alexander Kasterine, Head of ITC’s Trade and Environment Programme, states: “The fashion and leather industry has a stronger role to play in supporting CITES and developing countries to ensure supply is legal and sustainable.”

Also recommended is an investigation into establishing “legally binding minimum skin size limits to ensure protection of immature skins,” vital to the conservation of these species.

Snakes, of course, do not arouse as much sympathy from the general public as cute, furry mammals, but with the demand for snakeskin products growing around the world, the recommendations of this vital report must be implemented if we are to protect and conserve South-East Asia’s pythons.

Anna Taylor is a freelance journalist.

*image courtesy of www.shutterstock.com





The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate here