Is banning exotic leather bad for reptiles?


Recent bans on the sale of leather from exotic reptiles such as crocodiles, lizards and snakes may seem beneficial for species conservation at first glance. But evidence shows that such bans can actually harm species, as well as indigenous and local communities – argue members of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission.

Papuan people with freshwater crocodiles in the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea

In February 2019, the UK department store Selfridges banned the sale of products made from exotic skins, claiming improved ethics. While bans such as this one may well be motivated by supposed ethical concerns regarding animal welfare, the scientific rigour behind these decisions must be called into question.

As active conservationists and species specialists, within the world’s largest, oldest, and most prestigious conservation organisation, we are alarmed by retailers’ decisions to implement outright bans on the sale of exotic leather, instead of marketing sustainably produced wildlife products. We strongly believe that the consequences of such bans for biodiversity and local livelihoods in developing countries should be brought to light. The morality and ethics should be judged in its entirety.

Sustainable use of natural resources lies at the core of conservation; for wildlife to survive, people need to be both motivated and empowered to conserve it.

Sustainable use of natural resources lies at the core of conservation – most wildlife is outside strict protected areas, and for it to survive people need to be both motivated and empowered to conserve it. That means they need benefits: the central message is “use it or lose it”. Bans can – and often do – remove the value of biodiversity to the detriment of populations, species, habitats and people. There is ample scientific evidence indicating that banning the sale of wildlife removes the value of biodiversity, and in turn fosters illegal trade and damages local incentives to protect populations of animals.

Over the past four decades, a global effort has been underway to shift uncontrolled exploitation of wildlife to sustainable systems that benefit species, landscapes, and the people that depend on and use biodiversity. Trade in reptile skins is mostly legal, sustainable and verifiable. It is regulated internationally by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and by tiers of domestic legislation in exporting and importing countries.

An indigenous collector captures a yellow anaconda in Argentina An indigenous collector captures a yellow anaconda in Argentina. Photo: Emilio White Brands, designers and department stores play a critical role in providing incentives for conservation programmes around the world. For example, the luxury brand Loro Piana buys precious fibre from wild vicuña in the Andes; a demand that has driven sustained and ongoing increases in the species over recent decades. Hermès and Louis Vuitton buy saltwater crocodile skins from an Australian crocodile population that has recovered from devastation back to near carrying capacity, with wild egg harvest incentivising habitat conservation and tolerance of this dangerous predator. Most luxury brands know the widespread benefits their use of precious skins provides. They study their supply chains, are aware of the livelihood benefits, steadily improve the processes involved to ensure high standards of welfare, and understand how conservation and sustainable use improve the natural world.

Yet it seems retail corporations are often misinformed. Animal rights organisations who pressure retailers to ban exotic leathers contribute little to wildlife conservation. These organisations frequently neglect to acknowledge the impact of their actions on those living with the species they aim to protect. They seem to prefer species go extinct rather than be utilised.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims that exotic skins are sourced from endangered species whose numbers in the wild are “drastically dwindling”. The Humane Society International claims that the decision by Selfridges was a “natural next step for a responsible retailer”, that will save “countless” crocodiles and snakes.  

When a species’ commercial value is removed through actions such as banning the sale of leather from exotic skins, so is the incentive for local people to tolerate them.

These claims are demonstrably wrong. They are misinformation that ignores scientific evidence.

Aboriginal people collecting saltwater crocodile eggs in the Northern Territory, Australia Aboriginal people collecting saltwater crocodile eggs in the Northern Territory, Australia. Photo: Prof. Grahame Webb


In many countries, people tolerate and conserve dangerous animals – such as crocodiles and pythons – and their habitats, because the income derived through use compensates for the costs of living with them. Outside protected areas like national parks, habitats that cannot generate an income from the species comprising them are often converted to agriculture. Entire species assemblages are lost when this occurs.

The sustainable use of crocodile skins is highly responsible and one of the greatest conservation success stories on Earth. In places such as Australia, the USA, Mexico, Kenya, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Peru, Papua New Guinea and Bolivia, local people have and are supporting the recovery of wild crocodile populations because they were given an economic value. These are often indigenous people in remote places, drawing on traditional knowledge in management, and returns from sustainable crocodile harvest often constitute one of their only sources of cash income – money that is crucial to pay for food, medicines, and school fees. When a species’ commercial value is removed through actions such as Selfridges’, so is the incentive for local people to tolerate them.

Staff feed and clean the cages of Burmese Pythons at a farm in An Giang province, southern Viet Nam Staff feed and clean the cages of Burmese Pythons at a farm in An Giang province, southern Viet Nam. Photo: Daniel Natusch

So we are deeply disappointed and extremely worried about Selfridges’ decision. In 2016, Selfridges committed itself to ensuring that half of its products were “better for people and planet”. There are ecological and social benefits from sourcing exotic skins, including low environmental costs. Yet retailers like Selfridges stock and sell products made of synthetics and fossil fuels; materials that we know contribute to climate change, and poison our waterways and the fish we eat.

There are ecological and social benefits from sourcing exotic skins, including low environmental costs.

As conservation scientists, facing the challenges of wildlife conservation in the field, we are also disappointed with ourselves. In the face of decisions like those taken by Selfridges, and last year by Chanel, it appears that we have been ineffective in communicating and informing industry as a whole about the benefits of using precious skins. We have tended to ignore fundamentalist dogma about animals, assuming that its deceptions were evident to all, rather than challenge it when it undermines conservation. We have, as a consequence, failed to help corporations like Selfridges understand the benefits of sustainably sourcing exotic leather.

So we are starting now. It is time for large corporates to hear the whole story. It is time they stop listening to misinformation and begin listening to credible voices. And it is time that we, as a global society, begin educating ourselves about what sustainability, morals and ethics truly look like.

Human-wildlife conflict
Wildlife trafficking

IUCN SSC members - reptiles and sustainable use


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There is no excuse for tolerating that they to torture of animals that feels as much pain as a child!. It is a huge moral problem and a root of violence in humanity. Killing species that contribute to the health of our world is just destroying our own environment and if we do not change and respect other species, pandemics are not going to be the only disbalance we are going to have to face.

Dear Laura,

Thank you for posting this response. Based on our private email correspondence regarding these same points, you already knew that the vast majority of the claims you make here are false. Yes, this industry can improve in some ways, like all industries, but this trade DOES do a lot of good for people, for species, and for habitats. You would know this if your views, like ours, were based on evidence rather than ideology.

Instead, you choose to use misinformation to trick your donors, and the public, into believing they are funding a just cause. You incite outrage with creative imagery and a fake story. You keep people in the dark; relying on the confusion you create to fuel a campaign of misinformation that lines your coffers but hurts animals and people.

On the contrary, we are scientists. We are not sexy. We do not have big budgets or receive anything for communicating the facts and real stories about the trade in reptiles. We do this because we have dedicated our careers to telling the truth; because we genuinely want to make our world a better place.

So you make me immensely sad. Yes, animals are dying for their meat, skins, bones, and fat. We cannot deny that. We do not live in an ideal world where all humans have the luxury not to use animals. You make me sad because if you succeed in stopping this trade, many people will suffer. Many more animals will die than are dying now. And those animals will die in much more horrific ways than the few that currently sacrifice their lives.

If one day you and your organization have any interest in learning the truth, then I will personally take you to some of these places. To see the benefits of trade, to meet the people, and understand why your actions – although seemingly laudable – will do far more harm than good. You have my email.

Dr. Daniel Natusch – lead author of the above article

I'm writing on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and our more than 6.5 million members and supporters worldwide regarding the above article, which is riddled with misleading and false claims.

Contrary to the authors' claims, exotic skin producers do not ensure high standards of animal welfare. Every year, millions of reptiles are killed barbarically so that their skins can be turned into belts, handbags, shoes, watchbands, and more. PETA has exposed the extreme suffering of reptiles on farms in the U.S., Africa, and Asia, and each revealed that animal welfare is not a consideration at all for those who hunt, poach, and factory farm these animals. Please take two minutes to watch this video, narrated by Joaquin Phoenix:

Snakes and lizards—who are an integral part of many ecosystems—feel pain acutely and are often decapitated and then skinned alive.

Pythons have hoses inserted into their mouths and are pumped full of water to loosen their skin. Impaled on hooks or nailed to trees by their heads, the snakes are often conscious when their skin is peeled off their bodies. Still writhing in pain, they are tossed on piles and remain there for days before finally dying. Some animals live for up to 4 days after being skinned.

For an accurate glimpse into the miserable lives of crocodiles and alligators, please watch PETA's international exposé ( and read the story ( In Zimbabwe—the world's second-largest exporter of crocodile skins—tens of thousands of crocodiles are confined to concrete pits from birth to slaughter and deprived of every opportunity to engage in natural behavior. Please also consider this footage ( and the Forbes article (, which explains how tens of thousands of crocodiles in Vietnam are confined to cramped, filthy concrete pits—some narrower than the length of their bodies—before being slaughtered and skinned. Workers electroshocked them and then attempted to kill them by cutting into their necks and ramming metal rods down their spines.

In Texas, alligators—who can live up to 60 years in the wild—are kept in filthy, crowded tanks and beaten to death with metal bats when they're about two years old. They, too, are often skinned alive if the beating leaves them only stunned. Alligators who are caught in the wild are snared or caught with a hook and line and then shot in the head or stabbed with a chisel to sever crocodiles’ spinal cords—which paralyzes but does not kill the animals.

All reptiles have highly sensitive skin mechanisms to help them hunt, protect their young, and thrive in the wild, making their lives and gruesome deaths in captivity all the more harrowing. Because of their slow metabolisms, reptiles can remain alive and conscious for hours or even days after being completely skinned.

These animals endure a lifetime of stress related to intensive confinement, lack of a natural escape, harsh and unnatural enclosure materials like concrete, lack of fresh water, an irregular temperature, and rampant disease. Even after generations of captive breeding, these animals never become domesticated, as their behavior and biology remain wild.

Secondly, contrary to your claims, the use of exotic skins is environmentally disastrous. You condemn synthetics, but ignore the devastating effects of animal agriculture and the nitrous and oxide rich products such as leather. The production of animal skins results in water degradation, land clearing, increased water and soil pollution stemming from waste effluent, increased air pollution resulting from airborne particulate waste matter, increased petrochemical energy use associated with housing so many animals in close confines, cleaning and maintaining the buildings and enclosures, and transporting food in and waste out. These processes result in massive amounts of ammonia, methane and greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere. In addition, the chemicals used for leather tanning are known carcinogens and environmental pollutants. Tanneries also commonly have abysmal working conditions, resulting in the deaths of workers.

Third, exotic animal production does nothing to help conservation, or reduce poaching. Even where there are strong penalties for poaching, there are too few patrol officers to be a deterrent. After weapons and drugs, wildlife trafficking is the third-largest black market in the world. Skin dealers amass skins through a loophole in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which allows stockpiling. The practice even has a name: “snake laundering.” The skins may be exported to Singapore, then re-imported and falsely labelled “captive bred” (Source, p. xiii ). Illegally caught and traded python skins constitute an estimated $1 billion (£680m) black-market activity in Europe alone, and an estimated 500,000 skins are imported legally from Southeast Asia to France, Germany and Italy. Lizards are also exploited for their skin, and trade data indicate that a considerable number of them are collected from the wild – including from jungles, forests, farms, rivers and streams – as a first step on a gruesome black-market journey.

Even the legal trade in the skins of crocodilians worldwide has tripled since 1977. More than 90,000 are killed in the wild each year, and more than 255,000 are killed altogether, including those who are farmed. Some farms raise captive-bred eggs, but thousands are taken from nests, and there is a push to allow more wild-egg collection, which threatens wild animal populations.

In Cambodia, crocodile farmers switched from feeding the animals fish (their natural diet) to water snakes, a cheaper alternative. Not only is this change unhealthy for the crocodiles, the water snake populations have been nearly decimated, causing a devastating imbalance in the local ecosystems. In China and the Philippines, native crocodile species are almost extinct in the wild despite being intensively farmed for meat and leather—clear evidence of the lack of correlation between the production of animal products and wildlife conservation.

Lastly, the article argues incentive-based programs are necessary to ensure conservation of the environment and local wildlife. It highlights the “success story” of the Australian crocodile population which has “recovered from devastation.” The article fails to mention that these crocodiles first became endangered as a result of more than a quarter century of commercial hunting. Further, the tepid success of this incentive-based program was possible only due to strict regulations and heavy monitoring of crocodile hunting. Developing countries—where the majority of exotic skins are produced (often illegally) —often lack the capacity and resources to implement a similar program.

Claims of "ethical" exotic skins, or claims that production boosts conservation can never be substantiated. The only point we can agree on is the article’s final line; we too, believe, “it is time as a global society to educate ourselves about what sustainability, morals and ethics truly look like.”

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