Skins of Suffering: Fashion Trend Falls Hard on Reptiles

In the fashion world, accessories are a must to accentuate the style from top-name designers. The color, texture, and pattern of a purse, belt, or shoes are considered essential for celebrities and other fashion-conscious people when striving for that perfect, coordinated look. In 2011, fashion shows from Milan to New York took on an exotic look as snake skin once again became all the rage. While some designers opted for snakeskin prints, those more ethically challenged opted for the real thing—the skins of snakes and lizards dyed into a rainbow of colors and manufactured into an array of garments and accessories sold by the likes of Gucci, Versace, Chanel, Georgio Armani and others.

Our early ancestors used animal skins to stay warm and protected. In modern industrial societies, animal skins are used more often not as a survival aid but as a decorative flourish. Turning animal skins into fashion statements has become big business, involving millions of dollars and, sadly, billions of animal lives.

Many are aware of the suffering endured by foxes, minks, seals, and other furbearers exploited by the fur industry. Until recently, however, few have been exposed to the cruelty inherent in the reptile skin trade. While snakes and lizards slaughtered for the skin trade are unlikely to generate the human empathy reserved most commonly for more charismatic species, the vicious cruelties of the trade are hard to ignore. In recent years, Karl Ammann, a documentary filmmaker, and Bryan Christy, an investigative journalist and author of The Lizard King, have obtained videotape footage and eyewitness accounts of reptile slaughter for the skin trade that would disturb even the most ardent ophidiophobe.

International trade data reveal that a significant number of reptiles exploited by the skin trade are wildcaught—collected from jungles, forests, agricultural lands, or rivers and streams to begin days, weeks, or even months of suffering as they await their fate. Others are reportedly “captive-bred,” but according to experts, many of these animals are actually wild-caught and then illegally laundered in trade as captive-bred. Large lizards such as monitor lizards are captured live. Their front and back legs are tied behind their backs and they are thrown into bags or other containers for transport to the local market, skin buyer, or slaughterhouse. Snakes, including cobras, pythons, boa constrictors, and a variety of rat and water snakes, are extracted from their wild homes and stuffed in sacks or wooden boxes, potentially going weeks or months with no food or water before sale or slaughter.

As documented by Ammann and Christy, reptile slaughterhouses are often dark and dingy facilities with little concern given to sanitation or the welfare of animals. The bound lizards are strewn about the floor while workers attempt to hit each on the head with a steel bar in an attempt to kill them or at least knock them unconscious. Others are grabbing the lizards—some of whom are clearly still alive—and systematically removing their skins before discarding their flayed bodies in a heap.

Snakes, similarly, are struck with a steel bar. The workers aim for the head but don’t always hit the target. The snakes are then hung by their heads and a hose is used to fill each with water; to make it easier to peel off their skin. As depicted in Ammann’s documentary, The Medan Connection, some snakes are still alive as their skins are peeled from their bodies; head to tail. Most of the skins, once processed, are sold and exported—mainly to Europe to be manufactured into garments, shoes, wallets, watchbands, and other fashion accessories.

It is unconscionable to believe that such cruelty is permitted purely to make high-end fashions and accessories for those who think wearing real snake skin is macho, exotic, or sexy. To make matters worse, with virtually no meaningful regulation of the trade in reptile Skins of Fashion Trend Falls Hard on Reptiles skins - even for species subject to international protections under, for example, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)—this trade is threatening the very existence of an increasing number of species. Considering the myriad other threats to these animals, including habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution, climate change, disease, capture for the pet or venom trade, and killing for food or out of fear (whether or not they are poisonous), the extirpation of many species is certain unless dramatic actions are taken to expeditiously reduce or eliminate these threats.

Though snakes and other reptiles worldwide are exploited for the skin and pet trade, the international conservation community has recently focused its attention on Southeast Asia. In April 2011, officials from several countries gathered in Guangzhou, China, to discuss the Asian snake trade. Reports prepared for the meeting documented what many feared: Asian snake species are in dire trouble due to largely unregulated and unsustainable captures to feed the international pet and skin trade industries.

According to Dr. Mark Auliya, a German biologist and expert on the snake trade contracted by CITES to facilitate the Asian snake trade workshop, “sound data on the population status are not available for any of the species impacted by trade or other threats.” Moreover, Dr. Auliya states that, despite our having extensive knowledge of species and their global distribution, “the ecological and biological attributes of species in wild populations are largely unknown.” Even for CITES-listed species such as the reticulated python, equatorial spitting cobra, Pacific boa, and monocled cobra—species for which trade is ostensibly “sustainable,” without causing harm to wild populations—species-specific biological and ecological data are lacking, and trade is either known to be detrimental or the impacts are simply unknown.

CITES parties are required to issue “non-detriment findings” (NDFs) to authorize the export of any CITES Appendix II-listed snake species (e.g., oriental rat snake, central Asian cobra, Papuan python). Nonetheless, the fact that basic biological and ecological information about the species—the very information needed to determine whether trade is detrimental—is largely unknown, demonstrates that such NDFs are either not being made or are without merit. At a minimum, some information about population size and trends, habitat quality and quantity, productivity, mortality rates, and threats must be available to make a credible NDF. Indeed, of the nearly 325 Asian snake species included in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species, only 37 are considered to have stable populations. The population status of nearly all of the remainder is listed as “decreasing” or “unknown”—evidence, according to Dr. Auliya, of just how little we know about these species.

Notwithstanding the fact that exporting countries don’t have sufficient data on the status of their snake populations and/or how the skin or pet trade is impacting these populations, trade continues largely unabated, including into the United States and the European Union. For these species, CITES is a toothless treaty—failing to restrict trade in them even though they are listed in its appendices and thus marked for protection.

Indeed, the number of CITES-listed snake species in international trade is staggering. According to a wildlife trade database managed by the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, in 2009 alone over 61,400 live animals and approximately 756,441 skins and skin pieces from nine of the CITES-listed Asian snake taxa were exported just from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. This trade included 614,074; 86,896; and 31,515 skins and skin pieces from CITES-listed python, cobra, and rat snake species, respectively. According to import data obtained directly from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States is a leading importer of live snakes and other reptiles, snake skins, and reptile skin products. For example, in 2010, the United States imported over 7,940 live snakes and 301,851 skins/skin pieces and shoes from eleven particular CITES-listed Asian snake taxa. The suffering inherent to that amount of trade is incalculable—as is the likely impact to the ecology of those wild areas from which the snakes were captured.

For those species not listed under CITES—including the copperhead rat snake, cave racer, Bocourt’s water snake, spine-bellied sea snake and hundreds of others - capture, killing, and trade is unrelenting, and international demand for their skins and for the pet trade is likely contributing to their decline. In its comprehensive report for the workshop, Cambodian officials described the dismal status of snake species inhabiting the Tonle Sap Lake ecosystem, conceding that the Bocourt’s and Pufffaced water snakes “will be extinct in the near future” due to Cambodia’s inability to stop the capture or killing of these species for crocodile feed, the live snake trade, and the skin trade.

While some governments have established export quotas for certain snake species or have banned wild-caught snake exports altogether, it’s not known if the quotas are being adhered to, what amount of illegal trade is occurring, and/or whether wildlife law enforcement efforts are sufficient to stop illegal trade. For most countries exporting snakes, there are virtually no restraints on the trade, as conservation has taken a back seat to short-term jobs and revenue.

Snakes don’t enjoy the popularity of pandas, tigers, elephants, or whales and continue to be—undeservedly—the subject of scorn and fear by billions of people worldwide, yet they have intrinsic and extrinsic values that are incalculable. Considering the enormous ecological value of reptiles—consuming rodents who can adversely impact agricultural production and transmit disease to humans—such short-sighted policies pose a direct threat to a country’s ecology, agricultural output, and public health.

While addressing the many existing threats will take concerted actions by individual governments, it is appalling that the vanity of those who purchase snakeskin products continues to contribute to species imperilment and to the immense suffering of so many millions of individual animals. Consumers can avoid contributing to this exploitation and suffering by choosing never to purchase such products. In time, consumer compassion and tougher laws may help undermine the culture of lawlessness and cruelty inherent to the reptile skin business.