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Conservationists v Animal Rights: The War on Python Leather

California’s ban on the sale of exotic animal skin leather may seem like an obvious animal rights win, but conservationists say otherwise

In 1970, the state of California outlawed the sale of exotic animal skins. The legislation was part of an animal rights advocacy movement that would culminate in the passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act.  By then, returning WWII servicemen with few other employment opportunities had hunted Australian saltwater crocodiles and American alligators into near-extinction, so the ban primarily targeted the sale of their skins.  

But according to Daniel Natusch, a herpetologist and the chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Snake Specialist Group, the inclusion of pythons on the list of banned animal skins was confounding. “Pythons have never, ever been endangered, so this was probably a case of, ‘Oh, they’re used for their skins too. Add them to the list then.’”

Nearly five decades later, questions over the legitimacy and effectiveness of these bans still persist — pitting conservationists on one side of the debate and animal rights groups on the other. Complicating matters is that in 1987 the American alligator was pronounced fully recovered and consequently removed from the list of endangered species. As such, in 2006, after years of advocacy from the exotic animal skin industry, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed legislation that lifted the ban on the sale of alligator and crocodile parts. The new legislation, however, contained a sunset clause, which meant the prohibition was set to go back into effect in 2015. Then, in 2015, just as the ban was set to be reinstituted, Governor Jerry Brown postponed it again until 2020. Last year, however, a federal judge deemed the ban as being in violation of federal law. And so, as things stand today, crocodile and python skin is still fair game for sale in California.

Nonetheless, on January 1, 2022, other exotic skins, such as iguana, skink, caiman and various lizards are set to be added to the ban list. Ashley Byrne, a spokesperson for PETA, tells me that these bans, which currently only exist in California, can cause a ripple effect throughout the nation. “Cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco are trendsetters for the rest of the industry,” she says. 

“If a product can’t be sold [in California], a brand is likely to look at other options due to the state’s economic power alone,” she continues. Some already have. In 2019, fashion lines from Chanel, Vivienne Westwood and Victoria Beckham all issued statements on how they’ve stopped using exotic skins. 

According to Natusch, however, many of the most famous fashion brands who prosper from python skin — Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Ralph Lauren — do their due diligence and understand that their sourcing can result in both impact and opportunity. That’s why he believes these sort of blanket statements, not to mention all-out bans, are little more than virtue signaling. In fact, most brands that issue such statements (not including Chanel) never used exotics in the first place. “It’s no skin off their nose to make public statements about being champions of conservation and animal welfare when, in reality, they only made a couple of products a year from exotics,” he says. 

Moreover, he maintains that exotic leathers are fully sustainable and fashion companies are doing a lot to ensure they’re being socially and environmentally responsible when using them. “Think of cotton, for example, grown as a monoculture where no biodiversity survives, that suffers from major water consumption and pollution issues, and is constantly sprayed with herbicide and pesticide,” Natusch tells me. “Then think of snake leather, which comes from a natural rain forest that’s being protected by local people because of the money generated by trade.” This type of raw material, he argues, is the kind that gives value to a natural habitat (not a monoculture) and by default helps protect all the insects, birds, mammals and fish that also inhabit that rain forest.

Byrne, obviously, finds Natusch’s claim patently absurd. “There’s no excuse for slaughtering animals under the guise of saving them,” she says. (It should be noted, however, that PETA’s mission is to “put an end to animal suffering” — not conservation.)  

If you catch even a glimpse of a PETA video documenting how these skins are contrived, you’re sure to understand where Byrne is coming from. Some of the practices, including sealing off the python’s mouth and anus with rubber bands, then inflating it to death with an air compressor are undeniably heinous. But according to industry representatives and scientists, such practices are no more unsettling than what occurs in meat-packing houses around the world. “These animals are all used for their meat and other products anyway,” says Natusch. “California’s ban will not result in any fewer animals being killed, and their skins will be wasted if they cannot be used.”

Importantly, removing the leverage of the luxury industry that Natusch says is working to improve supply chains will likely result in potentially more animal suffering, since pythons are still just as likely to be killed for local markets with far less oversight. More to his point, there isn’t a single reptile species used for its skin today that’s threatened with extinction. “All are common, thriving and under strict conservation management because they’re valued by people,” he says. “By contrast, other reptile species that have no commercial value are facing varying levels of extinction risk.” 

One example is the Chinese alligator, which is considered a critically endangered species in part because there are no financial incentives to preserve the habitats they live in. “The Chinese alligator is small and inoffensive, and yet, because it has no value, people are unwilling to co-exist with them,” Natusch explains. “By contrast, Nile and saltwater crocodiles kill and eat hundreds of people every year, and yet, they’re conserved along with their habitats because, despite being man-eaters, they have a financial value to people.” 

Simply put, the exotic crocodile skin trade has helped to save many of the same species it profits from. “It might be distasteful for some people that this form of market-based conservation works, but we don’t live in an ideal world,” Natusch says.

And in this world, turning exotic animal skins into profits is a global trade — especially in Southeast Asia. There, the industry relies on an army of catchers. Most are villagers who happen across a deadly snake, while others actively look into brush piles and pull pythons from their hiding places. “A few ambitious hunters work in groups, setting nets, traps and baited hooks for the larger reticulated pythons,” per a New York Times report. The captured snakes are stored in canvas bags until they’re suffocated or beaten to death, and the carcasses are then hung by their heads and suffused with water. 

It’s the skinner’s job to cut open the python and scrape away the meat and guts, which are occasionally used as livestock feed or prepared for humans to eat. But the main product is the skin — “which is pegged, dried and sent to tanneries,” per the same Times article. As a whole, the trade is worth over a billion dollars, and in Southeast Asia alone, it employs roughly 200,000 people

How they operate and how they’re compensated, according to Jesus Rivas, a herpetologist and professor at New Mexico Highlands University, is what distinguishes wildlife management and conservation. This might sound counterintuitive, but operations that rely on catching animals in the wild are often more sustainable than operations that rely on captive breeding, Rivas tells me. 

The trouble is, skin farmers make up a majority of the legal exotic animal skin trade. “When you have an operation that harvests animals from an enclosure, it’s not producing any pressure for maintenance of the environment,” says Rivas. “If people go out and hunt crocodiles from the wild, they have a reason to protect the environment. They will protect the swamp and the water from pollution.”

But wildlife management, Rivas aruges, isn’t de facto conservation. Only programs that use a resource sustainably while also providing economic incentives for local citizens to help protect the environment qualify as true conservation. If profits primarily go to the tanner or the corporation, that, says Rivas, is business — not conservation. But if profits go to local people who can then make a decent living from the resources in the wild, those same people will be better advocates to protect the environment.

The fundamental difference between Natusch’s and Rivas’ stances on the exotic animal skin trade is one of trust. Natusch, who works closely with fashion houses, believes that their management efforts, in spite of their intention, are more valuable than their absence. “The evidence shows that this form of conservation works — for the past 50 years it’s proven itself,” he says.

But to Rivas, the fashion industry is far too fickle to entrust with such planet-altering responsibilities. “They can easily pivot,” he says — i.e., they can plunder a resource until it’s no longer fashionable then switch to a different species in a different country. This is why Rivas only trusts the people who live on the land to participate in the actual conservation efforts of pythons or any other animal with exotic skin. He advocates for a solution similar to fair-trade coffee, with checks and balances to guarantee the local communities reap the benefits that they sow — one where everyone makes a little bit of money rather than a single person or entity pillaging the resource until there’s nothing left. 

Rivas and Natusch, however, do agree that an all-out ban isn’t a solution. “They create the illusion that it’s good for conservation but that’s not necessarily true,” Rivas says. For his part, Natusch is decidedly more pointed: “The California bans stand to decimate the conservation effort’s success.”