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The reptile trade

Reptiles traded from Southeast Asia are commonly found in biodiverse landscapes such as waterways, shrublands, forests, and agricultural lands adjacent to rural, often marginalized communities. In urban landscapes, certain species of reptiles are also common and abundant.

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Larger reptiles have historically been harvested by local communities, both as a livelihood benefit and, notably, to curtail the impact of predation on local livestock and people (Natusch et al. 2020). Harvested reptiles are used for a variety of purposes, including food, medicine, leather and traditional instruments, and are traded locally and internationally.  Many reptiles are considered a culinary delicacy in Asia and have been used by people for centuries. The entirety of the animal is typically used with limited waste.

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Since the 1930’s, the demand for reptile skins by the luxury apparel industry in Europe and North America has increased due to the unique aesthetic, durable, and quality leathers that are used to produce high-end goods. This demand has resulted in a formalized export trade in reptile skins.

The majority of snake and lizard leathers currently traded globally originate from Southeast Asia, with most from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.Other important source regions include West Africa and South America. The destination of skins is predominantly Europe, USA, China, and the Middle East.

Approximately 90-95% of traded reptile skins originate from the wild. The trade is regulated by local, regional, and national governments, and by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Listing on CITES does not mean those species are threatened due to trade, but means that trade should be monitored and regulated to ensure that it does not jeopardize  the survival of species in the future.

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In addition to aesthetics, there is increasing recognition of the sustainability credentials of reptile skins as a renewable, minimal waste, natural material.  More broadly, the trade illustrates how robust management systems combined with incentive structures that value local renewable resources and support local livelihoods can lead to effective trade-based conservation of biodiversity.

The trade provides jobs, supplementary income, and a safe food source to often underserved people in Southeast Asia and incentivizes co-existence with predatory species. The efforts and investment of production country Governments and their wildlife management agencies, domestic and international conservation scientists and wildlife regulators, and the reptile industry, in part facilitated by initiatives such as SARCA, has done much to modernize and legitimize a nascent regional industry. The application of independently peer-reviewed and approved conservation science methodologies are evidencing healthy and resilient wild reptile populations that can sustain harvesting indefinitely.

Government wildlife management systems are demonstrating transparent, robust and technologically enabled monitoring systems, and the regulation of export trade that adheres to international requirements, such as CITES. Comprehensive guidance and training programs have been implemented to educate and build capacity for the humane handling of reptiles in the supply chain.

Challenges do however remain, and despite exemplary facilities in production countries that meet international standards, work is needed to bring the entirety of the industry to a common baseline of practices that meet the expectations of domestic and international stakeholders. The industry is fragmented and, in some instances, consists of small, often rudimentary, facilities that prove difficult to engage and upgrade without a concerted industry approach and without jeopardizing the wellbeing of those involved. These same facilities serve to support local cultures and rural livelihoods, that in turn provide the incentives to maintain healthy wild reptile populations.

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The industry also faces on-going pressure of activists opposed to the use of animals by people. This has affected general perceptions of the trade and influenced some international luxury brands to publicly state that they will not use exotic leathers, including reptiles. These campaigns are useful if they help to improve outcomes for reptiles, but if misinformed can threaten the unique incentives and benefits that the reptile trade brings to biodiverse landscapes and local communities’ livelihoods in low-income countries.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has also created trade demand and supply volatility, further affecting business viability in production countries. The pandemic has also raised debate about human interaction with wildlife, which in turn has implications for trade-based conservation initiatives such as the wild reptile trade, despite there being minimal  risk of zoonotic disease transfer form reptiles. SARCA’s activities follow the World Health Organizations One Health Policy – the health of people, environment and reptiles are interdependent.

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Both the benefits and challenges to the reptile trade go beyond an individual reptile, person, or organization. The issues are complex, nuanced, and inter-dependent, and require cross organization and cross border collaboration. This website outlines the role of SARCA in building a more transparent and responsible reptile trade. It presents the progress made to date on the issues identified and its continued focus to drive best practice, improvement and benefits for reptile species, local communities and economies, and the trade, through collaboration and a science-based approach.