As long as fashion demands snakeskin, captive breeding could be a sustainable solution.
A Burmese python (this one's from Florida). Image: Flickr/Florida Fish and Wildlife
It sounds like an ophidiophobe’s worst nightmare, but snake farms could be a solution to tackling a reported $1 billion black market for python skin and conserving the species—while still stocking fashion houses with the luxury diamond-patterned leather.
A new report by the Python Conservation Partnership assesses the viability of python breeding to confront the growing demand for the snake’s skin, which is particularly popular in high-end European fashion houses. Italy, Germany, and France are the largest importers, and they’re undoubtedly not always getting them from sustainable sources.
It might seem strange that conservationists are looking to protect snakes at the same time as some parts of the world—particularly the US—are doing exactly the opposite. Last year the Florida government paid people to grab a gun and shoot as many Burmese pythons as they could find slithering around the state’s ecosystem, while the Department of Agriculture parachute-dropped poisoned mice over the island of Guam and its population of brown tree snakes.
But while pythons and other snakes are a nuisance when they’re invasive species threatening local wildlife (or scaring local residents), the Burmese python and reticulated python—two of the world’s largest snakes and both with pretty rad patterned skins—are threatened in their natural habitats. That’s partly down to the thriving snakeskin trade, which sees around 500,000 skins exported from Southeast Asia each year according to the IUCN.
Those figures refer to legal imports, which are also valued at around $1 billion a year, but the increasing demand is putting pressure on wild populations and no doubt fuelling underhand activities. Whatever your feelings about designer snakeskin handbags, the trend is unlikely to abate any time soon (just look at the ongoing demand for ivory products), so sustainable trade is a crucial aspect of conservation efforts. Think of snake farms like regular farms that breed animals for food and clothing, just more badass.
At the moment, some countries already have snake farms—but before now there hadn’t been much research into the economic feasibility of breeding this way. It’s also often difficult to tell if a skin comes from a captive-bred or wild source, which makes it difficult for buyers and sellers to adopt sustainable practices: There's such a thing as snake laundering.
That's one of the reasons captive breeding has been questioned as a conservation method: Could farms act as fronts for people to catch snakes in the wild, then trade their skins as captive-bred? The authors admitted that likely did happen to an extent, but in a study of existing Vietnamese snake farms concluded wild-caught pythons were unlikely to make up a large proportion of the nominally captive-produced skins.
Another problem is that raising a whole farm of snakes isn’t the easiest thing in the world (believe it or not). It involves incubating eggs, catching rats for food, and of course slaughtering the animals—something that the report highlighted is not generally done humanely at the moment. Changes need to be made, but the report concluded that “With adequate capacity in place, captive breeding facilities are potentially capable of meeting all current and future demand for P. m. bivittatus (Burmese python) and P. reticulatus (reticulated python) skins.”
Of course, this should be done in conjunction with other conservation efforts, like preserving habitats and fighting illegal trade. But as long as there’s demand there’ll be someone willing to supply, so that might as well be a sustainable source. Perhaps Florida should consider a new industry.