Every year millions of wild reptiles, representing more than 50 CITES-listed species, are killed for their skins. Most of the skins are used in the manufacture of luxury leather goods (e.g. handbags, shoes), and the rest to make traditional musical instruments (e.g. the Chinese Erhu). Although very many species are traded, much recent attention has been given to the harvest and trade in Asian pythons, which has increased (imports of B. reticulatus and P. m. bivittatus skins have increased from 352,959 in 2003 to 575,183 in 2011). Now, nearly half a million skins are exported from Southeast Asia annually and the trade is thought to be a billion dollar industry. Not surprisingly, negative public perception regarding issues of sustainability and animal welfare in trade has also increased. A recent spate of YouTube videos depicting dark and dingy Asian python slaughterhouses have highlighted issues of potentially illegal activity and cruel slaughter methods, and once again discussion of the python skin trade has come to the fore of the conservation, industrial and public domains.

In response, the International Trade Centre (ITC), a United Nations subsidiary organisation, together with TRAFFIC and the IUCN/SSC BPSG, has recently published a report titled: The Trade in Southeast Asian Python Skins. The report identifies several areas where illegal trade in python skins may be occurring. Illegal trade is due, primarily, to significant financial incentives available at all levels of the trade chain to circumvent national laws and harvest quotas through the stockpiling of skins and forgery and sale of CITES permits. Potential conduits for illegal trade are centred largely upon the re-export of python skins of unknown origin (e.g., source country and code; captive-bred vs. wild-caught). However, the report provides only limited evidence to substantiate rumours of illegal trade, but emphasises that much of the trade is poorly regulated and difficult to assess due to lack of transparency throughout the trade chain.

Despite this lack of transparency and high probability of illegal sale of skins, the report identified several positive aspects of trade. It appears that the harvests of wild pythons in Southeast Asia, particularly the large harvests of the reticulated python (Broghammerus reticulatus), are probably sustainable. Such a conclusion will, of course, be discouraging for those who believe that wild harvesting of any animal species is unnecessary. Indeed, intuition suggests that removing more than 300,000 individuals of a large, ectothermic, apex predator from the population each year would certainly not be sustainable. However, due to a combination of favourable life history and ecological attributes (e.g. habitat and diet generalists, early maturation, fast growth rates, high fecundity) pythons are actually more able to sustain high levels of harvest than previously assumed. Moreover, their highly sedentary and cryptic nature ensures that, with the possible exception of several insular populations, current harvest levels are unlikely to result in the extirpation of these species anywhere within their range. Thus, the issue of sustainability is not directly related to the “preservation of the species” but more so to the “commercial sustainability” of the harvest.

Commercial sustainability, or simply maintaining sufficiently large numbers of pythons within an ecosystem, is important for two reasons: 1) snakes play a critical role in the ecosystem as apex predators and control agents for rodent populations, and 2) large numbers of people living in rural communities throughout Southeast Asia rely on the harvest of pythons as a source of additional income to improve their livelihoods. Although the number is probably exaggerated, Indonesia claims that more than 150,000 people directly benefit from the trading of python skins. My own observations are that, although few people derive their income solely from trading pythons, this trade does provide a worthwhile additional income stream. For example, in Indonesia the average value of 15 USD per snake is significant in a country where 50% of the population lives on less than 2 USD per day. In addition to its direct economic benefit to local people, the python skin trade is also important for food security. For example, I am currently studying the python trade in Sabah, Malaysia. Here, local people prize python meat, yet locals are not the only people to harvest pythons and much of the meat is wasted. By establishing a program whereby meat from large numbers of slaughtered snakes is frozen and then distributed to rural communities, both food security and a protein alternative to other bush meats can be provided. Such a system could alleviate hunting pressure on other wildlife in protein deficient communities, and thus assist more broadly in promoting the conservation of biodiversity.

In summary, although harvest levels appear to be sustainable for the time being, there is a strong incentive to protect the productivity of this resource and, consequently, an urgent need for better monitoring of harvests. Adaptive management and regulation of the harvest through specific skin size limits may be warranted to ensure harvest sustainability into the future – particularly given the rapid increase in human populations and thus associated harvest levels. As conservationists are quickly learning, conservation through “preservation” may not be the answer. Alternative systems that provide local people with incentives to harvest in a sustainable manner and conserve habitats should be researched and considered. Over the last few years I have read numerous articles and seen petitions calling for a ban of the python skin trade. However, I believe the positive outcomes of this trade outweigh the negatives, thereby providing an incentive for local governments, industry and conservation to iron-out the hiccups in trade and promote and implement systems to not only conserve these species, but also the livelihoods of local people relying on them

Daniel Natusch is an IUCN/SSC BPSG member currently working on the biology, ecology and sustainable use of reptiles in Australasia, and Southeast Asia. He contributed to the sustainability section of the report titled: The Trade in Southeast Asian Python Skins.

Photo: Top right - Python. Credit: Daniel Natusch.