Does the Devil Wear Prada…and Gucci…and Hermes…?


In 2010, I took some of the first video ever seen from inside an Indonesian reptile slaughterhouse and have written a bit about the business here.  Last year, after Swiss filmmaker Karl Amman showed The Medan Connection (viewable below) exposing the inner workings of the trade, Swiss parliament voted to ban imports of python skins from Indonesia on grounds of animal cruelty.  Since Switzerland is important to the three major buyers of reptile skins-the fashion houses Hermes, Gucci, Prada-this was significant.


In the wake of Amman’s film, the International Trade Center (ITC) of the World Trade Organization  in cooperation with CITES launched a project to study the python skin industry. I attended an early meeting in Geneva in which the ITC-CITES skin project was first discussed and because of what I had seen in the field and because of the role Amman’s graphic film had played in prompting the study, I pressed the participants to include humane treatment as part of their report, over the objection of some participants. Since I had begun my legal career specializing in WTO issues, I also questioned whether it was appropriate for CITES as an international trade and conservation body to lend its name to a wildlife effort conducted by the WTO, a commercial treaty organization.  Giving a CITES  ‘stamp of approval’ to a WTO project was a dangerous precedent, I suggested, and would likely not be tolerated by CITES parties if the WTO were researching trade in more popular wildlife species, such as lions.  I questioned whether governments should be funding a study that clearly benefited a small group of powerful fashion houses, who could certainly afford a study, but whose spokespeople claimed ignorance of where their snakeskins came from and how the pythons they bought were killed.

The report, co-authored with TRAFIC and the IUCN, is now out:  Trade in  Southeast Asian Python Skins.  It finds that Indonesia’s method of slaughtering pythons, the bludgeoning method, is “the most humane encountered” in all of Southeast Asia, and determine that it is both a humane and acceptable killing method. Interestingly, rather than call for a ban on skin imports from countries with crueler killing methods than Indonesia’s, the ITC, TRAFFIC and IUCN call upon Switzerland’s upper house to vote against the proposed ban on Indonesian skins on grounds that Switzerland’s ban is “inconsistent and discriminatory,” since Switzerland allows imports from countries whose killing methods are much worse than Indonesia’s.

Here, for example, is the killing method Viet Nam employs:

“In Viet Nam, the research team observed at one slaughterhouse that the live snakes (P. bivittatus) have their mouths and anus sealed using rubber bands. An air compressor is then used to fill the animal’s alimentary canal with air which has the same effect as filling the animal with water (i.e. to facilitate skinning), only the animal is still alive, not having had its head cut off or its brain crushed first. Post-inflation, a rubber banc was also tied around the heart to cause cardiac arrest.”

It may be that bludgeoning is the most humane way known to kill pythons on a large scale, but that does not mean Switzerland is wrong to think the practice unacceptable.   It is the potential loss of the Swiss market that inspired luxury leather dealers to pay attention to reptile slaughter methods in the first place.
Reptiles aside, if you care at all about the evolution of wildlife law, mark this moment.  With this report CITES (and TRAFFIC and the IUCN) take a position on the question of commercial non-discrimination, a WTO principle.

 Some other of the report’s findings:

  • Three leading brands account for 75% of the retail value of the python trade: HVMH (Hermes), PPR (Gucci) and Prada. Other important luxury brands include: Dior, Burberry, Chanel and Giorgio Armani.
  • “Singapore is the most important player in the international python skin trade.”
  • There is a “paucity of information” to determine whether current levels of harvesting from the wild are sustainable
  • Investigators raise questions about the veracity of countries’ captive breeding claims
  • The most heavily traded species is Reticulated python: avg 350,000 individuals per year.
  • Vietnam exports 100,000 Burmese python skins per year (97% of world total). All are declared to have been “captive bred.”
  • The study recommends slaughtering using brain destruction (bludgeoning) with an anvil-type system to hold the head in place (a potential improvement over the hit and miss system)

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