In February 2019, the UK department store Selfridges banned the sale of products made from exotic skins, claiming improved ethics. While bans such as this one may well be motivated by supposed ethical concerns regarding animal welfare, the scientific rigour behind these decisions must be called into question.
As active conservationists and species specialists, within the world’s largest, oldest, and most prestigious conservation organisation, we are alarmed by retailers’ decisions to implement outright bans on the sale of exotic leather, instead of marketing sustainably produced wildlife products. We strongly believe that the consequences of such bans for biodiversity and local livelihoods in developing countries should be brought to light. The morality and ethics should be judged in its entirety.
Sustainable use of natural resources lies at the core of conservation; for wildlife to survive, people need to be both motivated and empowered to conserve it.
Sustainable use of natural resources lies at the core of conservation – most wildlife is outside strict protected areas, and for it to survive people need to be both motivated and empowered to conserve it. That means they need benefits: the central message is “use it or lose it”. Bans can – and often do – remove the value of biodiversity to the detriment of populations, species, habitats and people. There is ample scientific evidence indicating that banning the sale of wildlife removes the value of biodiversity, and in turn fosters illegal trade and damages local incentives to protect populations of animals.
Over the past four decades, a global effort has been underway to shift uncontrolled exploitation of wildlife to sustainable systems that benefit species, landscapes, and the people that depend on and use biodiversity. Trade in reptile skins is mostly legal, sustainable and verifiable. It is regulated internationally by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and by tiers of domestic legislation in exporting and importing countries.
An indigenous collector captures a yellow anaconda in Argentina.
Photo: Emilio White
Brands, designers and department stores play a critical role in providing incentives for conservation programmes around the world. For example, the luxury brand Loro Piana buys precious fibre from wild vicuña in the Andes; a demand that has driven sustained and ongoing increases in the species over recent decades. Hermès and Louis Vuitton buy saltwater crocodile skins from an Australian crocodile population that has recovered from devastation back to near carrying capacity, with wild egg harvest incentivising habitat conservation and tolerance of this dangerous predator. Most luxury brands know the widespread benefits their use of precious skins provides. They study their supply chains, are aware of the livelihood benefits, steadily improve the processes involved to ensure high standards of welfare, and understand how conservation and sustainable use improve the natural world.
Yet it seems retail corporations are often misinformed. Animal rights organisations who pressure retailers to ban exotic leathers contribute little to wildlife conservation. These organisations frequently neglect to acknowledge the impact of their actions on those living with the species they aim to protect. They seem to prefer species go extinct rather than be utilised.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claims that exotic skins are sourced from endangered species whose numbers in the wild are “drastically dwindling”. The Humane Society International claims that the decision by Selfridges was a “natural next step for a responsible retailer”, that will save “countless” crocodiles and snakes.
When a species’ commercial value is removed through actions such as banning the sale of leather from exotic skins, so is the incentive for local people to tolerate them.
These claims are demonstrably wrong. They are misinformation that ignores scientific evidence.
Aboriginal people collecting saltwater crocodile eggs in the Northern Territory, Australia.
Photo: Prof. Grahame Webb
In many countries, people tolerate and conserve dangerous animals – such as crocodiles and pythons – and their habitats, because the income derived through use compensates for the costs of living with them. Outside protected areas like national parks, habitats that cannot generate an income from the species comprising them are often converted to agriculture. Entire species assemblages are lost when this occurs.
The sustainable use of crocodile skins is highly responsible and one of the greatest conservation success stories on Earth. In places such as Australia, the USA, Mexico, Kenya, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Peru, Papua New Guinea and Bolivia, local people have and are supporting the recovery of wild crocodile populations because they were given an economic value. These are often indigenous people in remote places, drawing on traditional knowledge in management, and returns from sustainable crocodile harvest often constitute one of their only sources of cash income – money that is crucial to pay for food, medicines, and school fees. When a species’ commercial value is removed through actions such as Selfridges’, so is the incentive for local people to tolerate them.
Staff feed and clean the cages of Burmese Pythons at a farm in An Giang province, southern Viet Nam.
Photo: Daniel Natusch
So we are deeply disappointed and extremely worried about Selfridges’ decision. In 2016, Selfridges committed itself to ensuring that half of its products were “better for people and planet”. There are ecological and social benefits from sourcing exotic skins, including low environmental costs. Yet retailers like Selfridges stock and sell products made of synthetics and fossil fuels; materials that we know contribute to climate change, and poison our waterways and the fish we eat.
There are ecological and social benefits from sourcing exotic skins, including low environmental costs.
As conservation scientists, facing the challenges of wildlife conservation in the field, we are also disappointed with ourselves. In the face of decisions like those taken by Selfridges, and last year by Chanel, it appears that we have been ineffective in communicating and informing industry as a whole about the benefits of using precious skins. We have tended to ignore fundamentalist dogma about animals, assuming that its deceptions were evident to all, rather than challenge it when it undermines conservation. We have, as a consequence, failed to help corporations like Selfridges understand the benefits of sustainably sourcing exotic leather.
So we are starting now. It is time for large corporates to hear the whole story. It is time they stop listening to misinformation and begin listening to credible voices. And it is time that we, as a global society, begin educating ourselves about what sustainability, morals and ethics truly look like.