Under your skin



Can we be sure python skin comes from sustainable sources and the animals are humanely treated? Not yet, but that is changing, thanks to a new initiative. Environmental expert Dr Helen Crowley helps us get to grips with the subject.

Although the python skin trade is about 80 years old, demand has shot up in the last 20 years as it has become le dernier cri in high fashion, thanks to its striking patterning. The biggest importers of the precious skin are Italy, Germany and France, where it’s used to make handbags, shoes and belts. These are then sold around the world, increasingly to Asian customers where sales have risen by 25% in the last ten years.

Now almost 500,000 skins are exported from south-east Asia every year; the total value is estimated in multi-millions of dollars and, worryingly, similar amounts in illegal trade. And therein lies the rub.

We can see the benefits the python skin trade can deliver to local livelihoods and national economies – it has great potential to be a positive. Yet consumption has clearly outstripped the ability to manage and regulate the industry. We are only now beginning to catch up. There’s a need for greater transparency or better ‘traceability’, the assurance of sustainability and the conservation of pythons in the wild. But what does sustainable python looks like, and how we can help this skin trade as a whole, to ensure it is sustainable and has a positive impact? To make things more difficult, the snake is used as food, in medicine and to make traditional Chinese musical instruments, as well as fashion accessories. It’s not just about the luxury industry’s supply chain: a rising tide floats all boats.

We believe there are four big questions we need to know the answers to, in order to build sustainable trade. First, is wild-caught python sustainable? For example what monitoring systems can we put in place to ensure pythons that are harvested from the wild in places like Indonesia are done so in a manner that does not negatively impact the wild populations?

Second: is captive breeding viable – and not being used as a front for the ‘laundering’ of skins caught in the jungle? It takes at least a year for python, particularly the Burmese and Reticulated (or Giant) python species– among the largest snakes in the world, to reach adult length of three metres. Hence the temptation to capture it in the wild. As well as hunting, there is opportunistic capture for those who are poor and have few alternative sources of income.  For example, despite large skin exports that say they are from ’captive sources’ from some countries such as Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, there is slim evidence that python farming is taking place.

Third and regardless of the first two: are pythons being treated and killed humanely? Lastly, is python sourcing a sustainable option for rural, usually poor, communities in the development of a country, as it seems to be? After all, such people often rely on various types of biodiversity (animals and plants) as a source of cash, medicine and food. The overall implication is that we can surely make the trade better and maximise the benefits in a manner that’s beneficial to all.

Rubbing up the right way

So there’s a need for a group of experts to figure out the answers and provide recommendations. That’s where the Python Conservation Partnership comes in. It’s the first-of-a-kind public-private partnership and is a collaboration between the International Trade Centre, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (which includes the Species Specialist Commission – Boa and Python Specialist Group) and our experts at Kering and Gucci which convert these precious skins into fashion goods.

The focus is on those countries where python is typically sourced: Indonesia, Malaysia and Viet Nam for wild harvest, and China, Thailand and Viet Nam for farming.

There’ll be two phases of the PCP programme. The initial one will involve 12 to 18 months’ worth of fact finding, analysis and recommendations. The first report came out on 31 March and included advice on the farming of python. It addresses the issue of ensuring pythons that are supposed to be farmed are not trafficked from the wild under the guise of husbanded animals. The PCP is currently working with Viet Nam to develop innovative techniques to differentiate between captive-bred and wild-caught skins. One way, for example, might be to encourage farmers to keep python eggshells as proof of captive breeding. A more sophisticated method would be to test small skin samples for different types of isotopes to tell what the snake has eaten. You are what you eat and wild pythons would have different isotopes from captive pythons, based on their diet.

Following peer review by other experts, the second phase, due around 2015, will involve the implementation of such recommendations, and include the involvement of other government and private enterprise bodies needed to bring the guidelines into force under the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of wild fauna and flora (CITES). By the way, CITES has real teeth. It has notched up several successes; it is putting pressure on Madagascar to encourage the sustainable sourcing of crocodile..

PCP’s overall aim is to provide guidance on everyone involved in the python trade to adopt sustainable and transparent practices when sourcing python. More farming could help reduce the pressure on wild python populations in Asia. On the other hand, it’s possible that farming might undermine conservation efforts because it could provide little incentive for protection of the wild snakes and their habitat. It’s a complex world out there….

In our opinion, it’s clear a holistic approach is needed, and additional research is required to determine the benefit and impact on livelihoods, including the conservation of python in the wild. I look forward to the day when we are sure that all pythons are sustainably produced, humanely treated and they contribute to local livelihoods. Then we can all be satisfied with what we do – for python and people alike.


Helen Crowley has been conservation and ecosystem services specialist at Kering since 2011. Previously she worked for Wildlife Conservation Society for 12 years – most recently as  associate director market-based conservation initiatives and as director of field programmes in Africa and Madagascar . She has a BSc in zoology and a PhD in ecology.