Reptile skins are obtained from snakes, lizards and crocodiles. It is cruel to use items made from these skins be they from India or abroad, protected or not. Also, baby reptiles are captured, stuffed and sold by poachers for prices ranging from Rs 15/- to Rs 500/-.
When trade in reptile skins was banned under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972, initially the leather industry came up with calf leather embossed and finished in different ways to look like snake, python and monitor lizard skins, as also crocodile and alligator leather. Traders proudly said it was not reptile skin but an alternative. On questioning and examination it was discovered that the material was in fact calf leather, finished to closely resemble reptile skin.
This trend resurfaced in 2009 with Da Milano snake print (and jungle theme and other animal print) handbags, footwear, belts and accessories made of leather.
These days actual snake skin items like footwear, handbags, wallets, belts and watch-straps may not be seen on people that often, but that does not mean that snakes are no longer illegally skinned in India.
In snake-infested areas like some districts of Tamil Nadu, catching and killing snakes for their skins (the most sought after being the saral or cobra skin) results in additional income for villagers.
The snake-skin is obtained in one piece by nailing the head of to a tree, slitting the body from end to end with a knife and then pealing the skin off which is then preserved in salt pots till sold to wholesalers. Quite often the victim remains alive for a couple of days without its skin.
There are four species of monitor lizards in India and they are all exploited for their skins. They are also killed for their meat and other products for different applications, like monitor lizard fat (extracted by boiling) is used by rural folk for curing several ailments.
Although illegal, monitor lizard skin has landed up being utilised in the making of fashionable accessories. And, ghumot, an earthenware pot covered with the skin of the monitor lizard, is used as a drum in Goa.
Farmed crocodiles are those that are bred and raised in captivity; whereas, crocodiles in ranches are raised from eggs and young taken from the wild. In both farming and ranching, when the crocodiles are about 3 years old they are killed for their skins, whereas their natural life span is about 60 to 70 years.
Crocodiles are either shot dead or are slaughtered in a most brutal manner called “nape stab and pith” where a worker stands on the crocodile’s head and another on its tail to immobilise it. A wet, heavy material is placed over its eyes after which a sharp chisel is forced between the base of the skull and the first vertebrae to “stun” the animal before a narrow rod is inserted into the skull to destroy the brain. It involves several repeated tries before the creature succumbs.
Skin is the main reason for killing crocodiles, although their meat is also consumed in some countries and considered a delicacy. At a circus-like show performed at the crocodile farm in Singapore, not only can visitors have their photographs taken with crocodiles, but they can buy crocodile skin goods which include stuffed baby crocs, and crocodile meat from their gift shop.
Alligator and crocodile skins, considered classic leathers are very expensive and since hard to come by, are sold by the centimetre. Caiman is also crocodile skin but of an inferior quality, and more commonly available.
Import and Export
Ironically, India has not stopped the sale of imported reptile skin products. Reptile skin goods (shoes, handbags, wallets, belts, watch straps – even iPad cases) manufactured by most international luxury brands are easily available here and sold at exorbitant prices: for example, an office bag made of alligator skin sells for over Rs 7,00,000/-. Exotic, genuine, reptile skin watch-straps also come into India along with high-end foreign watches. The items are imported as part of a consignment containing products that are not all wildlife derived; and it isn’t even specifically listed or accurately described in full, in the declaration for the authorities.
A few get round the law by importing reptile skin like that of anaconda (similar to python) which gets discreetly mentioned in articles covering luxury goods. Some stores having got away with bringing in items without difficulty, have begun stocking “Limited edition for India” goods like alligator (looks like crocodile) and ostrich clutch bags, whereas other brands continue with their customisation “Made to Order” exclusive and expensive offers of crocodile and other exotic skin “masterpieces”.
In September 2011, FIAPO approached BWC for guidance on stopping advertisements in publications such as Vogue and sale of such animal products ranging from fur and feathers to python skins.
This reminded BWC to again draw the attention of the Ministry of Environment & Forests about wild life skins such as those of snakes, pythons, crocodiles, monitor lizards, and feathers and furs of endangered species that are imported into India. (These genuine wild life skins should not be confused with similar looking imported imitations.) They come in as finished goods consisting of footwear and handbags costing lakhs of rupees, to watchstraps of expensive wrist watches, even mobile cases. The advertisements and brand promotions target those Indians seeking such ill-conceived status symbols.
In fact, these branded goods are brazenly advertised in high-society magazines such as Vogue, Hello, and some times in unexpected ones like Businessworld. Quite often the "price is available on request" and an order needs to be placed after which the item is imported for the purchaser. The products are therefore not on display at their outlets so government raids would not give the desired results.
It was further pointed out that the government should not feel that it does not concern India because the skins are not of Indian origin. Imports should be clamped down upon and not overlooked because such imported items result in more poaching of wild life here. BWC feels that just like the ban on trade in ivory of Indian and African elephants which falls under CITES can be implemented, trade of other wild life skins can be stopped, and not only on paper.
BWC has therefore requested that government warn outlets against promotion and import, and the Customs authorities spot and take action against importers of such illegal items. We are eagerly awaiting positive action and response from the government.
Meanwhile, wildlife poachers have already begun to illegally use India Post to smuggle products out of the country – probably sold on-line. Deer antlers, reptile skins, elephant-ivory and tiger-nails have been intercepted, but unfortunately a high percentage of parcels have left the country undetected. Moreover, the culprits have not been located because the senders’ addresses on the parcels are fictitious.
BWC has in mid-2013 written to the Minister of Finance requesting that appropriate action via the Central Board of Excise and Customs be taken. We have also alerted the Department of Posts.
Do not buy any reptile skin item – not even a watch strap with the idea of changing it – and inform the seller exactly why you are not purchasing it.
For detailed information on Crocodiles please read
For detailed information on Snakes and Lizards please read