Snake skin trade dangerous for eco system


Maneka Gandhi


(Bihar Times) Recently , the Sunday edition of a newspaper wrote about the “ passions” of a high profile divorcee only famous for going to parties . Her main passion  it seems is bags and shoes and they photographed her with her ‘ main” bags , all costing upwards of Rs 25,000. Two were made of reptile skins

Snakeskin has become the latest must-have and designer labels including Jimmy Choo, Donna Karan, Mulberry, Gucci, Prada, Roberto Cavalli and Yves Saint Laurent have all used it in coats, bags and boots.

Celebrities such as Kylie Minogue, who was recently photographed with a python skin handbag, and Sienna Miller, seen in snakeskin boots, are encouraging an illicit trade that can have terrible consequences for fragile eco-systems around the world.

Python shoes, boots, belts, jackets and skirts are being fashioned from snakes’ skin.

The fashion industry insists the skins are farmed ( as if this is less cruel) but this is completely untrue. There is a thriving illegal trade in South-East Asia and South America.

The regional program officer in South-East Asia for Traffic, an international monitoring network says” "I have been to visit dozens of so-called python 'farms' but only one of them was breeding pythons. The rest were using the farms as a cover for pythons caught in the wild."

South East Asian countries like Thailand, Cambodia, China and Vietnam claim to farm snakes. But trade watchers say that there cannot be any snake farms because pythons take too long to mature and are too expensive to rear in captivity.  These farms simply pay villagers per snake they catch from the wild. The myth that villagers grow snakes and depend on them for their livelihood is also untrue as they are paid so little per snake that farming is not a viable option.

Unfortunately , while governments know that the snake farms are a myth , they allow these snake skins to be “ legal”. More than 350,000 skins of the reticulated python species were legally imported into the EU in 2005 and this has increased in the next three years. There is no record of snake farms raising so many adult snakes a year. The illegal trade is at least that large. Which proves that over 1 million snakes have been caught in the wild yearly  for Europe and America. 1985 to 1998, the last year for which data are available from that country, Indonesia exported more than 4.5 million pythons, either skinned or alive.

Snakes are caught in the wild at 3-4 years old  in Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, India, and the Philippines. They are sent to the manufacturing markets of the U.S., EU, Canada, and China.
This fashion trend is disastrous for one of the world's longest, most magnificent and least threatening snakes. It is already resulting in plagues of rats (their prey) in South-East Asia.

To convert pythons into profits, Indonesia's snake-harvesting industry relies on an army of catchers who work in groups in the jungles and grassland, settings nets, traps and baited hooks for the blood pythons and the larger reticulated pythons. Captured snakes are stored in canvas bags and sold to primitive skinning plants. In Indonesia alone the industry employs about 1,75,00 people of which 150,000 are snake catchers – which proves that that “farmed” snakes are a myth. The rest are skinners and international sales agents, according to the Indonesian Reptile and Amphibian Trade Association, which represents licensed tanneries and reptile-product exporters.  

It is illegal to catch, kill or trade in snakes in India since the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972. Till then the Irula tribe caught and skinned thousands of cobras yearly and sold them. There is still a strong trade in snake skins which go via Nepal to China.

Many people claim that they are wearing/using the moulted skin of the snake and no creature was killed. This is a lie spread by the industry. The snake moults its skin several times during its life. Just before shedding, the skin becomes dull and dry looking. The inner surface of the old outer skin liquefies. This causes the old outer skin to separate from the new inner skin. After a few days, the snake crawls out of its old skin by rubbing it against rough surfaces.  Moulted skin is too dull, dry and thin to be turned into anything. Snakes must die for their skins.

The two most popular kinds of python used in the fashion industry are the browny-orange "python curtus" and the grey-and-white "python reticulatus” . However every kind of snake is used - sea water, fresh water, cobras, ratsnakes, kraits, anacondas and pythons.

Small snakes are impaled on hooks or a nail is hammered through their heads into a tree, to skin them alive by making a small incision under the head and a long slice all the way down its stomach. The skin is grabbed from the top and peeled away in one piece. Once skinned, snakes are left to die, which can take 2–3 days.

Larger snakes like pythons have hosepipes forced into their mouths and are blown up with water while they are still alive to loosen the skin. They are also skinned alive and left to die which can take 2-3 days.Snake.

The EU, is the world's biggest importer of snake skins. Between 2000 and 2005 it is estimated that 3.4 million snake skins were brought into the EU. Italy is the largest consumer in the world making shoes, bags, belts, and wallets made from reptile skin. Germany is the second largest producer, followed by France. The United States accounts for about 50% of the Italian export market for finished goods; Japan, 35%; the remaining 15% goes to other European markets. A scrub python can be sold for as much as $10,000. The United States alone imports finished products made from reptile skins worth about $257 million a year.

The Vietnam government in 1998 stopped the sale of snakes to China, as this had caused an endemic rise in the rat population However, snake catching villages continue to exist and are in fact major tourist attractions in Vietnam. Strangely enough, while catching snakes is illegal here , there are two villages in Faridabad and Delhi which are snake catcher villagers and entertain tourists. One of them is opposite the airport ! My people raid them regularly and come away with dozens at a time.

Wildlife trade, which includes trading of Reptile Skins is regulated globally by Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Regulation set by CITES are implemented through countries’ own National laws and Wildlife Regulations.  But the bans are sketchy. For instance , in California, python has been banned for 25 years but no similar legislation restricts the use of the skin in Europe or other American states.

The United States and 114 other countries have signed the CITES treaty implementing the ban on reptile skins and furs from “endangered species”, the enforcement of these bans however, is extremely difficult. Only 20 % goods brought into the United States are inspected by the U.S. Customs Service.

There is very little that can be done to enforce CITES.  Many countries selectively decide which bans to enforce and which to ignore. For instance  Taiwan decided not to join CITES and imports of endangered reptiles continues.

Lack of knowledge on species wildlife is another problem when enforcing these bans. Custom officials often cannot recognize one animal pelt from another and they do not know the laws. In Delhi we have filed a case against an animal importer who was bringing in snakes and turtles from Singapore . They are strictly forbidden to be imported into India – but neither the wildlife department of Delhi nor the customs seemed to know the 30 year rules !

 After weapons and drugs, traffic in exotic animals for their skins and meats is the third largest black market in the world. Anyone wearing or buying snakeskin should be shunned by society for endangering the environment and taking part in criminal activity.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in


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