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20 Sep 07
Pythons skinned and left to die
The shocking reality behind fashion's new obsession
By Tom Rawstorne
Pythons skinned alive and left to die in agony. Alligators killed with hammers and chisels.
This is the truly shocking reality behind fashion's shameful new obsession: At a slaughterhouse, deep in the Javanese jungle, blood-stained hands untie a wriggling sack and pull out a ten-foot long python.
The snake is stunned with a blow to the head from the back of a machete and a hose pipe expertly forced between its jaws. Next, the water is turned on and the reptile fills up — swelling like a balloon. It will be left like that for ten minutes or so, a leather cord tied around its neck to prevent the liquid escaping. Then its head is impaled on a meat hook, a couple of quick incisions follow, and the now-loosened skin peeled off with a series of brutal tugs - much like a rubber glove from a hand.
From there the skin will be sent to a tannery before being turned into luxury shoes or handbags. Finally, they will be snapped up by an army of pampered Western fashionistas desperate for the latest look and happy to pay thousands of pounds to get it.
Meanwhile, back in Indonesia, the python's peeled body is simply tossed on a pile of similarly stripped snakes. After a day or two of unimaginable agony it will die from the effects of shock or dehydration.
Barbaric, cruel, stomach turning - those are just a few of the words used by those who have witnessed snakes being skinned alive.
But in Europe, the mention of reptile skin - be it snake, lizard, alligator or crocodile - draws a very different response and a very different vocabulary.
'Exotic skins are hot right now, there's a real buzz,' enthuses designer Roberto Cavalli, who has dressed Kate Moss to Sharon Stone. 'I love to use reptile skins because it excites me to take material that is seen as " wild" and mix it with a look that shouts glamour and sophistication.'
Sad to say, Cavalli is not alone in the fashion world in his attitude to the latest must-have 'fabric'.
The European Union is the world's biggest importer of reptile skins. Between 2000 and 2005, it is estimated that 3.4 million lizard, 2.9 million crocodile and 3.4 million snake skins were brought into the EU.
And this year, like never before, skin is most certainly 'in'. Indeed, the hottest fashion debate in town is not about the ethics of the trade - but whether to opt for python or anaconda.
Take, for example, Jimmy Choo, makers of shoes and bags. The high-end fashion house's £ 1,695 Rio clutch handbag is available in the skins of either of the above. Or what about treading in Sienna Miller's fashion footsteps with a pair of python-skin boots by the American designer Devi Kroell? Yours for just a shade under £1,000.
Something else? Try Calvin Klein's alligator jackets, Celine's white python skirt or a metallic python bag by Zagliani - injected with silicone for an ultra-soft feel. Jennifer Lopez has been spotted out and about sporting the Zag-bag while Desperate Housewives star Eva Longoria's passion for a giant £1,300 python bag by Prada saw websites inundated with drooling postings from envious fashion-watchers.
'Wow will you look at that!!!,' wrote one such contributor. 'You get a lotta python for your money. It's beautiful!'
But, as environmentalists are only too quick to point out, it looks a whole lot more beautiful on the snake.
On the banks of the River Arno there's an Italian town whose motto goes as follows: 'Always make sure people walk on Santa Croce shoes and dress in Santa Croce skins'. As the saying implies, Santa Croce has been the home of the Italian tanning industry for centuries.
But, while it has traditionally specialised in treating hides from cattle and sheep, nowadays the factories are full of the skins of exotic species such as snakes, crocodiles and ostriches.
Make no mistake, it's big business - the Centro Rettili, one of the largest tanneries, last year dealt with 3,000 individual crocodile skins and 50,000 snakes - producing 170 ,000 metres of python skin (roughly 100 miles, the distance from London to Birmingham).
The three-storey factory is run by Roberto Bachi, who set up the company in 1985 and has 20 employees. Their work consists of turning the sundried skins that arrive at the tannery into a material that is both workable and highly desirable.
'We work for all the big designer labels - Versace, Gucci, Chanel, La Croix and Fendi and the skins are used for handbags, belts and shoes,' explains Mr Bachi. The crocodile skins, he says, are farmed in America while the snakes are imported from Indonesia.
'In the Indonesian jungle, they are caught using ropes. I know some of these poor people have been killed in the process,' he adds. 'They have been crushed or strangled to death and the python also ingests its prey once it is dead - it's not a very pleasant end if you are caught by a python.'
Very true Signor Bachi. But reverse the roles and the same is true.
Equally pertinent are the growing concerns about the impact the reptile skin trade is having on fragile species and the eco-systems in which they live.
For while the fashion industry defends its use of these animals by claiming that they are either farmed or harvested under a strict system of quotas, environmentalists say the reality of what is happening is not that simple.
Consider the plight of the reticulated python, the most popular of snakes when it comes to the manufacture of shoes and handbags.
Found primarily in South East Asia, it is the world's longest snake, with exceptional specimens growing up to 30 ft in length. It is fast growing, has a beautifully patterned skin and has been plentiful in the past.
However, experts warn that the population is under severe threat. This is recognised in part by the fact it is on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - an agreement to which more than 170 countries have put their names.
CITES aims to protect specific species from extinction by controlling the trade in these animals. This year, for instance, it stipulated that 157,000 reticulated python skins could be exported from Indonesia.
The figure has stayed relatively stable for years and one might be forgiven for imagining that the population can sustain the removal of that number of snakes every year. But those on the ground say that simply is not the case.
Dr Mark Auliya is based in Malaysia and is the South East Asian scientific officer for TRAFFIC, an organisation linked to the World Wildlife Fund which helps monitor the international wildlife trade.
He warns that the reticulated python population is under pressure. 'While the quota established by the Governmental authorities stays the same, every year the hunting areas required to fulfill that quota grows larger,' he said.
'This means that 20 years ago a certain amount of pythons could be harvested from a much smaller area than today.
'Also, there is clear evidence that large specimens are getting rarer and rarer. It shows that the reticulated python cannot cope in the long term with the high out-take by the commercial skin trade.'
While clearly better than nothing, the CITES quota system has long been criticised for being far too 'generous'.
'It is really a convention on trade and not on protection,' says Clifford Warwick, a consultant biologist and one of Britain's leading reptile experts. 'Any quotas set by CITES or by anyone else I take with an absolute pinch of salt.'
For every animal or animal product that goes through the system legally, it is estimated that another will be smuggled.
Evidence of the scale of this illicit trade emerged recently when more than half a ton of python skins were discovered hidden in audio speaker parts in a lorry being driven from Malaysia to Singapore.
'In Indonesia relatively low-level bribery gets something through,' says Mr Warwick.' CITES certificates can be bought at very little cost, forged or copied and they are very rarely inspected. It is not a problem - it is simple to move snake and reptile skins around.
'If you have half your trade in the world slipping through the net, you effectively have no control.'
Both Dr Auliya and Mr Warwick's own experiences also raise questions about claims that the snakes or reptile skins used in the fashion industry come from farmed stocks. Mr Warwick says that less than 10 per cent of reptiles are farmed because the process is too expensive and too complicated.
Even alligator ranches in America, he explains, have to be 'topped up' with wild adult specimens because the breeding process has such a high mortality rate.
'The slaughter process is pretty dire,' says Mr Warwick. 'The snakes are often nailed to a tree with a large nail. It doesn't kill them because they have a small brain and there's little chance of actually hitting it. 'The hunters then slice round the base of the head and peel the skin clean off the live animal and then throw the still-living carcass onto a pile and leave it to die. It can take hours or days for them to die from dehydration or shock - it is a really dreadful thing for them to do.'
He continues: 'In other places they will decapitate the animal before skinning. The problem is that decapitating the snake doesn't kill it instantly. 'With a snake the head will be alive for an hour or two hours - completely conscious, completely sensitive to pain, fear and everything else.
'That comes about because their metabolic rate is much lower and slower than ours and accustomed to low blood pressure. The nervous system is quite resistant to lack of oxygen and continues to survive without its body for some time.'
Equally disturbing, says Mr Warwick, is witnessing alligators being skinned at U.S. ranches. They are clubbed to death or have a chisel smashed through their spinal cord with a hammer ('it paralyses the animal and they then get a short knife and slice through as many blood vessels they can reach - so you have a paralysed animal that is slowly bleeding to death and that usually goes through the skinning process before it is dead').
The gulf between the blood and gore of the 'harvest' and the boutiques that sell the end products could hardly be more stark.
In London's exclusive Harvey Nichols, for instance, they are selling Zagliani python clutch bags for £725. They are highly sought after because the snake skin from which it is made is treated with silicone. It is a technique developed by Mauro Orietti-Carella, the man behind the Zagliani label, who insists that the snake skin he uses is always CITES certificated.
Carella said: 'I think it's very important to keep the equilibrium of nature so what is taken out of the environment is replaced - I deal in a very honourable way with skins.'
They are fine words. But quite what they count for, in the jungles of Java, one can only wonder.
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