Fewer crocodile tears
The luxury industry has a unique position in biodiversity conservation, because it uses the skins from endangered species. The fact that reptiles can be made into shoes or handbags makes them vulnerable. But at the same time, their market value goes a long way towards protecting their species. Crocodiles saw their numbers drop precipitously after the Second World War, as demand for leather soared, sparking a hunting frenzy. In 1971, when all 23 species of crocodilians were either endangered or threatened, the IUCN formed a Crocodile Specialist Group. It’s been a qualified success: eight species are now abundant enough for well-regulated harvests.
One effective measure has been ranching — collecting crocodile eggs in the wild and raising them on farms. The eggs become a source of income for local populations, encouraging them to protect the animals’ habitat. And habitat destruction is often a greater threat to wildlife than hunting or poaching. “Ranching has allowed us to save quite a few species of crocodiles,” says Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy director of the IUCN's Species Programme.
Demand for python skin has also skyrocketed over the past decade, so they, too, must be carefully tracked and managed. Dr Helen Crowley, a zoologist who worked at the Wildlife Conservation Society before becoming Kering’s conservation and ecosystem services specialist notes,
“SNAKES ARE A DIFFICULT SPECIES TO MONITOR. YOU CAN’T JUST GO INTO THE FOREST AND COUNT THEM, BECAUSE THEY ARE REALLY CRYPTIC AND DIFFICULT TO FIND.”
In 2013, Kering and Gucci teamed up with the IUCN’s Boa & Python Specialist Group (BPSG) and the International Trade Centre to create the Python Conservation Partnership (PCP). It is conducting studies around sustainability, transparency, animal welfare and local livelihoods in order to improve the python trade and push for change across the industry.
“TO PROMOTE TRADE SUSTAINABILITY DIRECTLY MEANS TO PROMOTE PYTHON CONSERVATION, AND THIS IS THE MAIN REASON WE ENGAGED WITH THE INDUSTRY,”
says the BPSG's chair, Tomas Waller. One area of study has been the feasibility of captive breeding, since farms can be used as a front to launder wild-caught snakes. Results of the PCP research have been comforting, Waller says. “We were able to challenge our former ideas and confirm that large-scale production of python skins in captivity is indeed possible and, in fact, is taking place in several south-east Asian countries.” To address compliance concerns, the PCP is studying ways to tell the difference between skins that are farmed or wild, such as testing skin samples for diet.
Yes, in my backyard
The PCP is also looking at how valuable the python trade is for local communities. The extent to which local people can be key players in habitat protection was recently highlighted in Madagascar, one of the first countries to practise wild crocodile egg collection. Its system worked well for years, but then flagged, and in 2010 an international moratorium was placed on exports. The ban lasted four years.
In October 2014, Kering and the IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group along with the International Trade Centre joined forces to help the Government of Madagascar monitor and manage the trade of Madagascar’s Nile crocodiles. What’s revealing is that during the moratorium, local villagers started destroying crocodile eggs. As Crowley says,
“WHO WANTS CROCODILES IN THEIR BACKYARD? NOBODY DOES! ”
They tolerate crocodiles—and they won’t turned their habitat into rice fields and destroy their nests—when they can get cash for eggs. If you want people to protect something, there has to be value in it for them.”
She’s quick to point out that just because you put an economic value on something, it doesn’t diminish its intrinsic value. On the Red List, the humble musselcracker gets the same billing as a crocodile.