This is the 1st of your 3 free articles

Become a member for unlimited website access and more.

FREE TRIAL Available!

Learn More

Already a member? Sign in to continue reading

Skin Trade

It turns out that python skin is the newest trend for purses and pumps, but it’s a mortal liability for the wild reptiles that provide it

Scenes from a slaughterhouse: First clubbed with hammers or iron rods (below left), then piles of pythons are prepared to be filled with water (below right) and hung for initial stretching (above). Karl Ammann’s cameras, both still and video, record the gory details to call attention to the overkill.



Though undeniably bold, the slither-chic allure of this versatile piece is hard to resist. It has the ability to instantly polish any outfit, adds a stunning statement focal point to an evening look and can pop against simple daytime basics.” These words from a fashion blog read as shockingly naïve and frivolous in comparison to the facts on the ground in the slaughterhouses of Indonesia. While these luxury goods are the latest “get” for shoppers, does anyone give any thought to where the colorful scales come from?

Truly, it’s not easy to muster sympathy for cold-blooded snakes as one would for baby seals or dolphins. From the very beginning, the relationship between man and snake has been antagonistic, as memorably illustrated by the bossy cavewoman of Johnny Hart’s “B.C.” comic strip who never fails to pummel the sorry Adder with her club, on sight and without provocation.

At the current rate of legal and illegally processed and exported python skins, it’s doubtful that the species can sustain the current level of attack on its numbers. Ammann has witnessed stockpiling of skins at some dealers that would suggest they’re anticipating a shortage in the near future and are holding their inventories for higher prices. Little of the revenue for the highly lucrative luxury market compensates local communities for their loss.

The trade in python skins is tragic on several fronts. Most buyers probably assume that the skins come from domesticated (captive-born) reptiles, which isn’t the case as breeding is more expensive than wild capture. Unchecked harvesting of wild pythons threatens the species’ survival, has a detrimental effect on the delicate balance of nature’s food chain and can produce the unintended consequences of a rise in rodent populations. The methods of processing the snakes are deplorable and grisly, while fostering a network of shady and unsavory merchants. And the highly disproportionate distribution of income favors the end product manufacturers and retailers in the luxury market where designer bags from Gucci, Valentino, Prada and others sell for over $4,000 in contrast to the $10 paid at the source for a three- to four-meter-long python. Capture is typically made by farmers working the new palm oil plantations that are rapidly replacing Indonesia’s rain forests.

There’s the will and the way to harvest more skins than can be legally exported in keeping with Indonesian regulations and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) quotas, so the overkill is smuggled through Malaysia and Singapore. CITES certificates can be bought at very little cost, forged or copied, and they’re rarely inspected. Judging by the stockpiling by some merchants and slaughterhouses, it’s easy to imagine that there’s an anticipation of future shortages in supply that might drive up prices.

In the early 1980s, Swiss-born Karl Ammann began his photographic, documentary and activist career as a sideline to his hotel and travel company ventures in Kenya. His first books focused on the natural beauty of wildlife in the East African parks, but as environmental conditions began to deteriorate, his attentions turned to the more pressing environmental issues involving the great apes and elephants as victims of poaching for the bushmeat trade and deforestation by logging interests. Ultimately, his concerns were expanded to include all trade in captive animals and wild animal parts from Africa to Southeast Asia.

“I was working on research for a documentary on the CITES convention for Swiss TV when I came across the fact that Switzerland is the biggest importer of reptile skins, mostly for the watch industry,” Ammann explains. “Switzerland also issues more CITES import and export permits than any other country. Switzerland is also the depositary country for the convention with the head offices based in Geneva.”

We’ve followed Ammann’s crusade in Outdoor Photographer, beginning with early articles on what he would term the “world in order” beauty of East Africa, then the topics changed to gorilla poaching in the Western jungles, and most recently, the trade in wild animal medicinal products in Southeast Asia. In this new role, his equipment has changed from the typical large telephotos of the wildlife photographer to more portable, less conspicuous and sometimes concealable equipment. The photographs that result from these projects are gruesome and offensive, but represent a profoundly different use for the camera. Truth trumps beauty. Ammann’s images become more about documentation and evidence-gathering than perpetuating myths about the world’s Edens.

End Product: With handbags selling for upwards of $4,000 by designers, it’s easy to see the driving force behind the trade. Ammann encounters resistance to cameras at couture stores, as well as country markets, so much of his photo/video-gathering requires inconspicuous capture.

“To expand on the ‘Swiss angle’ in the CITES context,” says Ammann, “I proposed to take a close look at the reptile skin trade and to what extent it really complied with the stipulations of the convention. The proposal was then picked up by another magazine show platform at Swiss TV, and I was asked to arrange a corresponding shoot in Indonesia. This initial item illustrated some of the animal cruelty issues, as well as some indicators as to how various actors managed to export skins outside existing CITES quotas and other shortcomings in terms of compliance. As with most such investigations, it soon became clear that other aspects—like the export and import of personal effect items made from reptile skins, the claims by some other Southeast Asia countries of exporting mostly captive-born pythons, the role of some transit countries, etc.—required further research and fieldwork. This was completed in March of 2011, and all the material has been worked into a comprehensive documentary.”

Ammann adds, “A further issue which arose in the context of this investigation is the fact that many of the importing countries have specific laws when it comes to cruelty issues [no import of items where cruelty was involved in the production process]. As such, there is little doubt that, irrespective of the weak compliance and lack of enforcement by the CITES authorities, there is also another legal aspect which should be taken a lot more seriously. I plan to expand on this cruelty issue and then take this second angle to the respective national authorities, the fashion houses and watch manufacturers, which are clearly party to this infringement of national laws.”

When one luxury goods manufacturer professes in its literature to customers “profound respect for nature which translates into efforts to preserve beautiful landscapes, protect biodiversity, ensure consumer health and the harmless production methods…,” it conjures the question, what’s the definition of “profound respect”? These pictures and some video material reveal what’s taking place on the ground in Southeast Asia. Ammann has been approached by a range of animal welfare NGOs with requests to assist with documentary material, but he continues to insist that they provide clear information on what they plan as their campaign and how they would endeavor to measure the results and achievements. This year, for instance, the CITES quota provides for over 150,000 reticulated python skins that can be exported from Indonesia. Countless more are exported illegally. The largest question remains: What’s sustainable for any species that’s the brunt of such market demand?

The numbers are numbing, but photos and video footage are explicit and undeniable.

You can see more of Karl Ammann‘s revealing investigative environmental photography at