Exotic Animal Skins: The Cruelty Behind the Trend

After decades of dedicated campaigning, major fashion houses are dropping fur, and now the spotlight is turning on ‘exotic’ animal skins

Snake skin background
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Investigations are starting to uncover the cruelty behind these products, as well as the unscrupulous dealings of those involved. Despite laws being introduced to protect certain wild populations, animals are still caught and killed and passed off as farmed, while some fashion brands have even lobbied conservationists to get their support for the use of exotic animal skins… and succeeded.

Conflicts of Interest

In 2020, Buzzfeed reported a highly disturbing connection between the IUCN (the international conservation body) and the supply of animal skins to luxury brands. They reported that Grahame Webb, who led the IUCN’s group on crocodiles for decades, actually owned a crocodile farm in Australia for which he took eggs from wild nests. The skins of the crocodiles slaughtered at his farm were sold to Louis Vuitton and Hermès.

Not all fashion houses are the same but those who take a stand have come under fire. Just three days after Chanel announced it would no longer use exotic animal skins, Webb co-authored an article which appeared in an online fashion magazine under the headline: “Why Chanel’s Exotic Skins Ban Is Wrong.” Worryingly, when Buzzfeed asked how many of the IUCN’s 15,000 experts had reported possible conflicts of interest, the IUCN declined to respond.

If we cannot rely on conservationists to protect wild animals – including crocodiles, snakes, stingrays, sharks, kangaroos and giraffes – something is very wrong.

Crocodiles

Crocodiles are prehistoric and have outlived dinosaurs by 65 million years. Through the millennia they have been worshipped, feared and most recently systematically exploited. As the popularity of their skins as a fashion item started to rise in the 1800s, they faced an onslaught that could have wiped them out altogether. By the 1960s and 70s, populations were declining so fast that laws were brought in to protect them. And with them came a familiar concession to those who profit from animal skins: to allow wild populations to recover, you can factory farm them instead.

Crocodile on the waterbank
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Like all factory farmed animals, the stress of living in overcrowded captivity can lead to frustration, aggression and injuries, perhaps even more so for these wild animals than for other species that have been domesticated. Dr Clifford Warwick, a reptile biologist, says: “In [crocodile] farms, 90 per cent of the injuries the animals suffer are directly related to the oppressive nature of their environment. As well as wounds from fighting, they develop abnormalities and deformities because they can’t walk or swim and they are subjected to water that is occupied by too many animals and this distorts the bacterial balance so that their wounds become infected.”

Warwick is adamant that crocodiles should not be farmed and says that those farming them fundamentally misunderstand them. He says: “There’s not a lot I approve of in crocodile farming. Their biology and behaviour do not lend themselves to a captive life. To a casual observer – and that often includes the people who run crocodile farms who are not usually scientifically qualified – the animals may seem peaceful and relaxed. But an animal behaviourist can see that they are stressed.”

Despite their suffering, the crocodile farming industry is growing. Thailand leads the pack with around 1,000 farms, the largest of which holds 150,000 crocodiles. Australia has 20 farms, but this figure is rising. In 2020, French fashion house Hermès submitted plans to build its own farm in Australia, and it could hold as many as 50,000 crocodiles.

Snakes

Save the Snakes, the non-profit dedicated to mitigating human-snake conflicts, says that wild snakes “are in decline because of habitat destruction, disease, over-harvesting, invasive species, and even climate change. These combined threats have brought some snake species ever closer to the brink of extinction.” But is snake farming the answer?

Those who stand to profit argue that it is better and more sustainable to kill them in farms than to kill wild animals, as if there wasn’t a third option: not killing them at all. But in any case, this argument is a smokescreen. It takes years for a snake to reach optimal size, and so farms are regularly found to have “laundered” illegally caught wild snakes and passing them off as farmed.

Snake sticking tongue out
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Like Hermès. building a crocodile farm, Kering – the company behind Gucci, Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen – has built a python farm, again in Thailand. But in 2017 the company made clear it had no intention of ending the use of wild-caught snakes and would kill both captive and wild animals for its shoes, bags and belts. The fashion for snakeskin is driving both intensive farming and the slaughter of wild pythons, and the cruelties involved are immense.

Commercial snake farms have developed rapidly across Asia from when the first experimental farms were set up in China in 2007. Most research conducted into these farms looks at sustainability and zoonotic disease risk, rather than the welfare of the animals. But in 2021, PETA conducted an investigation at a snake farm in Vietnam and its findings were deeply shocking. The animals there spent their lives in filthy cramped cages and when it came to ‘harvesting’, they were inflated to death:

“Workers close the mouths and anuses of the pythons with tight constriction bands then cut a hole in either the head or the tail, insert a hose, and pump in compressed air – a killing method that is considered inhumane … The investigator was told that the snakes were allegedly stunned with a car battery before being slaughtered.”

Stingrays, Sharks, Kangaroos, Giraffes and More

Shagreen is the skin of stingrays and sharks. It first came to popularity in the 1920s, when it was used in writing desks and other furniture, and it is still considered a “luxury” material by homeware designers. Those who continue to use it say it is a by-product of the fishing industry, showing that “accidental” by-catch can be highly profitable.

Ostrich
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Kangaroos are slaughtered and their skins (“k-leather”) used in boots, shoes, trainers and football boots, with the biggest buyers of these products being Europe and the US. Reindeer skins sell as a “fashionable” floor coverings, ostriches are slaughtered for bags, giraffes are turned into boots. And there are many more species exploited and killed so their skins can be worn, sat on or used as a talking piece.

The Tide is Turning

As with the fur trade, the exotic skins industry will end only when we stop buying the products and when fashion houses feel the pressure to use only ethical fabrics. Already, these campaigns are paying off. Luxury labels including Chanel, Mulberry, Paul Smith, Victoria Beckham, Vivienne Westwood, the SMCP group, Diane von Furstenberg and Selfridges have confirmed they will not use exotic skins. And the 2020 Stockholm Fashion Week banned both fur and exotic skins.

There is still much to do to protect wild animals from the fashion industry. To support campaigns to end the use of exotic skins, see:

And to support an end to fishing and the by-catch of sharks and rays, see:

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