Tuesday January 29, 2013
Snakeskin fashion can threaten wild pythons
By NATALIE HENG
DEALING in python skins is big business. Bearing a kaleidoscope of colours and patterns, the skins often resemble works of art, which puts them in great demand by the fashion houses of Europe.
Designers like Erdem Moralioglu and Proenza Schouler have show-cased an exotic rainbow of blue, green and brown python-infused clothes and bags in their 2013 spring collection.
Three leading brands – Hermes, Gucci and Prada – account for 75% of the retail value of the python trade, whilst other important players include Dior, Burberry, Chanel and Giorgio Armani, according to a report by the International Trade Centre (ITC), a subsidiary organisation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO).
If one were to walk into an internationally reputed designer store, and pay US$10,000 (RM30,140) to become the proud owner of an exquisite python skin handbag, one would expect the snake skin to have been legally sourced. But the report Trade In South-East Asian Python Skins which was released last November raises concerns about how much we can trust the global supply chain of python skins. The bag may not be a fake but with the lack of traceability for skin trading, the python skin it was made with could well have been laundered.
Singapore is the most important player in the python skin trade. It re-exports about a quarter million of reticulated python skins a year. There are concerns about the myriad of potential laundering risks at this trading epicentre. If you were looking to sell illegally sourced skins, Singapore’s large, undeclared stockpiles – which make it is virtually impossible to verify the origin of the skins – would seem like the perfect place to mix in dodgy goods with bona-fides.
Without a transparent inventory, whole skins can be declared as half skins, allowing an equal number of illegally sourced whole skins to be mixed into the stockpile. Illegal skins can be traded as “pre-CITES convention” skins. Though Singapore joined the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1989, and experts maintain it is only feasible to stockpile skins for two to four years before they begin to degrade, the ITC report says there are still skins being traded as “pre-Cites” even though this would imply some skins have been in storage for over 20 years. In fact, there are plenty of instances where laundering would seem like an easy explanation for the occurrence of discrepant python skin trade figures.
The two main countries involved in wild-caught python skin exports are Indonesia and Malaysia. Vietnam too, has contributed towards a major portion of the market, especially in Burmese python skins, but all exports are declared to have come from captive-bred snakes. But given the variation in production costs between wild-caught and farmed python skins, yet both types of skins command the same market price, doubts have risen over the commercial feasibility of Vietnam’s python farming industry.
The report highlights certain discrepancies in Vietnam’s annual trade figures. Thousands more python skins were exported in 2010 than could be accounted for by records obtained from Vietnam’s southern Cites Management Authority, where the vast majority of its python farms are located.
This led to suspicions that unscrupulous traders have been laundering wild-caught pythons from Indonesia and Malaysia by smuggling them into Singapore and mixing them with existing stockpiles, before labelling them as “captive-bred” skins from Vietnam, for re-export to European markets.
Vietnamese python skins were banned from the European Union in December after the European Commission’s scientific review group formed a “negative opinion” on reticulated python exports from Vietnam. Malaysian python skin exports have been banned by the EU since 2004. Nevertheless, python skins from both countries still find their way into the EU: Malaysia and Vietnam export most of their skins (over 60%) to Singapore, which exports about 60% of its python skins to the EU.
The biggest exporter to the EU is Indonesia, which ships 50% of its python skins to Europe and 31% to Singapore. The report says that Indonesian hunters ignore quotas and illegally harvest snakes throughout the year for sale to slaughter houses. To support the local industry, Indonesia only exports semi-pro-cessed skins. These, however, are less in demand than the cheaper, raw skins which Malaysia, the second biggest exporter of wild-caught python skins, exports.
The report also reveals data which indicate a wider extent to the problem. For example, a large number of python re-exports from Malaysia were declared as “seized shipments” from Thailand over a three-year period (2004 to 2007). Thailand has always played a minor role in the python skin trade. The report says it has been postulated that these were illegal skins being falsely declared and re-exported as stock obtained from seizures.
The smallest and newest player in the python skin trade is Laos. Its exports jumped from 5,000 skins in 2009 to 20,000 in 2010. The skins were reported to have come from pythons bred at one farm, which had sourced its parent stock from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, about 10 yeas ago. Many remain suspicious, however, about the capacity of a single farm to produce such a large number of snakes. The report’s authors were denied entry to the farm and were therefore, unable to verify the farm’s apparent success at breeding the snake.
There are also concerns about the large volumes of juvenile pythons being caught to supply Indonesian factories, as this leaves little chance for the replenishment of stocks in the wild. This, the report says, raises concerns about the long-term sustainability of the trade, despite the python’s relative resilience to harvesting.
Pythons are protected to an extent by international law. They have been listed in Appendix II of Cites since 1975. Appendix II species can be internationally traded but the commerce is regulated. All imports and exports require Cites permits which are issued based on quotas to ensure that the trade is not detrimental to wild populations and their habitats.
On paper, the Cites is an important and commendable convention. However, its implementation relies on the enactment, and effective enforcement, of national legislations. In that light, there are still weaknesses along the supply chain when it comes to the trade in South-East Asian python skins. And the huge market for the skins is an incentive for the black market trade to thrive.