By  on March 31, 2014

PARIS — Can the trade with precious python skin be sustainable and economically viable at the same time?

According to the first report presented by the Python Conservation Partnership, an initiative between Kering, the International Trade Center, or ITC, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, it can.

“It’s the first time that we have a study which shows that it is indeed biologically feasible to breed pythons in captivity within a time frame that is economically viable, and that is fantastic news,” said Daniel Natusch, IUCN’s boa and python specialist and one of the authors of the study, which was initiated by Kering and presented here Monday.

The report focuses on the reticulated python and the Burmese python, which are two of the world’s largest snakes, with habitats in Southeast Asia. According to the report, they have been harvested for the past eight decades, “primarily to meet demands from the fashion industry to make luxury leather products,” with Italy, Germany and France as the biggest importers.

Increased demand “is likely to put significant pressure on wild stock,” the study has concluded, suggesting sustainable farming as the prime solution.

“The demand for python skin is in constant growth, particularly in Asia,” said Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering, whose stable of brands includes Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Saint Laurent.

In the past decade, worldwide demand for python skin has risen from 400,000 to 500,000 skins, according to IUCN.

Daveu said Kering does not own any python farms “yet,” but revealed that Gucci, the group’s flagship brand and prime taker of exotic skin, was looking into possible acquisitions. “First, however, we need to define the standards [which don’t exist] and identify the criteria that make a farm sustainable,” Daveu told WWD.

She said Kering sources its python skins mainly from Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, with the group “committed to making sourcing of precious skins as sustainable as possible” and preferably achieving 100 percent sustainability by 2016.

Disclosing its research publicly, Kering also hopes to facilitate industrywide change. “Our objective is to create a dynamic,” Daveu said.

Separately, in June, the group will start training and educating farmers in Vietnam, which is the world’s largest exporter of captive-bred python skins.

Jean-Christophe Vié, deputy director of the global species program at IUCN, billed the world’s oldest global environment network, said he has been approached by other luxury brands with regards to python preservation, but said the IUCN was unable to reach an agreement with them. “It’s a burning issue for many brands, but Kering was the most pragmatic here,” he said.

Both Vié and Natusch added that more research was vital to understand the mechanisms of the python trade, which at present remains an opaque enterprise.

“We don’t know how many python farms there are exactly in Southeast Asia and we can’t be sure if wild animals are not entering the trade,” said Natusch. He noted the IUCN was currently working on technologies to distinguish between skins that come from wild animals and those bred in captivity, based on the quantity of chemical elements present in the skin, which varies depending on the reptiles’ diet.

Generally, it is not the conservationists’ aim to stop wild harvesting altogether, but rather to create an equilibrium. “There would be little incentive to preserve pythons in the wild if all [were bred] on farms,” said Natusch.

The Python Conservation Partnership focuses on five areas: differentiating between captive-bred and wild animals through technology; monitoring wild capture to improve sustainable sourcing; improving captive breeding; promoting animal welfare, and improving the impact of the python trade on local livelihoods and national economies.

Python farming constitutes a significant part of income for local communities. For instance, the report quotes a case in which a Chinese farmer was able to earn about $25,000 a year from raising 400 pythons.

Depending on quality, one meter of python skin is traded for between $32 and $35, while it takes one year to breed a serpent that produces three meters of skin.

According to John E. Scanlon, secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, which regulates international trade of some 35,000 species in order to ensure their survival, legal trade in python skin is valued at $1 billion a year, with estimates suggesting black market trade “of the same order.”

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