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Scaly Fashion; An Upsurge In The Trade In Reptile Skins

27th Feb.,2004

In the last few days the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI) has learnt of a disturbing new trend in the illegal trade in reptile skins. In a recent case in Mumbai 29 python skins (Python reticulata) were seized by the Deputy Director Wildlife, Northern Region, Mr S.K. Niraj, from a leather factory in Dharavi. Three people were detained, including a Dutch lady, who stated that she had imported the skins from Italy with the knowledge of Customs officials. It is now believed that the skins were procured both from domestic and foreign sources. This is the fifth or sixth case in succession, with leads as far afield as the Netherlands, Italy, Singapore and Malaysia. In an earlier case, six handbags were seized made of snake skin (possibly keelback) that is believed to have been smuggled, via Dubai, from China.

A quick browse on the Internet for exotic leathers reveals thousands of sites and companies selling and manufacturing products made from reptile skins. Exotic leather is back in fashion and taking a heavy toll on a number of endangered species. In many countries the manufacture and trade of reptile articles, such as coats, shoes, bags and belts, is permitted. There are a number of such manufacturing units of snake skin products in China, Thailand and Malaysia.

In India, all trade in reptile products is prohibited under The Wild Life (Protection) Act. But a clandestine trade continues. There have been a number of seizures over the last two years where quantities of skins of snakes and other reptiles have been seized. In a major case in July 2002 in Bangalore, the police arrested one person and seized 35,100 snake skins (mostly rat snake and cobra) and 12 bags containing cut pieces of lizard skins. The haul was valued at Rs. one crore (~US$ 210,000) in the international market. The skins were allegedly brought from a village in Chittoor District, in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. They were being taken to Chennai from where they were to be shipped to Singapore. Other large seizures have taken place in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Uttaranchal.

India has a long history of trade in reptiles; in 1977, a staggering four million snake skins (mostly rat snake skins) were legally exported. It is believed that the trade was so extensive that it played a major role in the huge increase in the rat population which, particularly in the 1970s, decimated food grain stocks. The export of snake skin products was finally banned in 1986, and despite energetic appeals by reptile traders and a stay order, the ban was eventually upheld on 20 March 1997. In 1999, the Indian Government publicly burnt 160,000 snake skins and over 5,000 reptile skin shoes and bags in National Zoological Park, New Delhi. These stocks had been held for several years by Bharat Leather Corporation, an Indian Government enterprise dealing in the export of leather goods.

Similar to the trade in big cat skins, it seems that the wheel has come round again to jeopardise the future of our snakes and other reptiles.




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