The growing population of reticulated pythons in the country has prompted the government to try to sell their skin in the European market, which could earn the country RM443 million annually.
THE luxury goods industry thrives on exotic animal leather. While the skins of alligator, crocodile, stingray, lizard, ostrich, emu and camel are highly sought-after for their texture and quality, reticulated python skins are in demand for its unique diamond pattern.
A growing global demand, coupled with the increasing population of reticulated pythons (retics) in the country, sees the government eyeing the European market for retics skin trade.
Natural Resources and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said the trade would boost the livelihood of farmers, particularly rural ones who depend on wildlife harvest.
Wan Junaidi said the peninsula had a quota of 162,000 retics to be harvested and exported annually, while Sabah had 3,000, which was not utilised.
Sarawak, he said, had no quota since its law had not been amended to allow for python harvesting.
“Last year, 59,000 python skins were exported from the peninsula). This represents 36 per cent of the export quota, which will be higher if we can enter the European market,” he told the New Sunday Times.
A population study on pythons from 2010 to last year by the Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) estimated between 181,000 and 1.9 million pythons were living in palm oil plantations and forests in the peninsula.
“However, the number could be higher as the survey did not take into account other habitat types, such as swamps and villages, where human-python conflicts commonly occur,” Wan Junaidi said.
“The species is so abundant in the peninsula that the industry has survived for three generations. Hunting and processing python skin require specialised skill sets.
“Due to the dangerous nature of the job, not many are interested in the industry. Therefore, not many know about the existence of such an industry in Malaysia.”
He said the price of raw retic skin could go up to US$100 (RM443) per piece and could get higher if processed according to strict guidelines.
Access to the European market, he said, would earn the country US$100 million (RM443 million) annually.
There is one problem.
The European Union (EU), the world’s largest importer of retic skins since 2002, has banned imports from Peninsular Malaysia. However, it is possible for EU members to import from Sabah.
The move came following concerns of harvest sustainability due to the high volume of export annually, as well as claims of “inhumane” treatment of the snakes and illegal skin trade.
The EU had also raised concern over the lack of regulation and framework in Malaysia to ensure that international trade would not endanger the snakes.
This, Wan Junaidi said, had lowered the income of rural folk as skins were cheaper in regional markets.
Despite the ban, the skins were believed to be making their way to Europe via neighbouring countries.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) noted that although Singapore did not harvest and export snakes itself, the country was a “major re-exporter of skins sourced from neighbouring countries” and was a “significant player in the trade of retic skins”.
Wan Junaidi said there had been concerns that illegally-sourced skins were sent to Singapore, and that the local industry could be protected if the EU ban was lifted.
He said the ministry and Perhilitan had approached the EU Scientific Authority at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) last year to negotiate the lifting of the ban on imports of wild retics.
“We spoke to them after the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties in South Africa last year. The quota (number of snakes harvested from the wild annually) may be increased if we get access to Europe.
“If the ban continues, our traders cannot expand their market and are more likely to give up on the industry.
“Consequently, the decrease in hunting will cause the python population to increase, which will result in more human-python conflicts. We may then end up culling them without making any profit,” he told the NSU.
On average, Wan Junaidi said, Perhilitan received 125 python-related complaints annually.
According to the 2016 International Trade Centre (ITC) report, “Trade in Python Skins: Impact on Livelihoods in Peninsular Malaysia”, Malaysia is the world’s second largest producer of wild retic skins for European and Asian markets since the 1970s.
In addition, the 2016 IUCN report, “Sustainable Management of the Trade in Reticulated Python Skins in Indonesia and Malaysia”, noted that at least 300,000 retics were harvested from the wild in Indonesia and Malaysia yearly to meet international demand.
The number, experts said, could be much higher as it did not include the thousands of illegally traded pythons.
Animal conservationists also fear that the rise in trade will lead to more inhumane treatment and killing of the reptiles.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a non-profit organisation, had reported that retics were killed in an inhumane manner. Some were beaten to death, while others had their heads chopped off with a machete or nailed to a tree, with their skins slowly torn off.
Wan Junaidi said Perhilitan and IUCN Species Survival Commission Boa and Python Specialist Group (IUCN SSC BPSG) had engaged traders to educate them on the Best Practice Guidelines for Python Processing Facilities.
He said the guidelines took into consideration the proposals in the IUCN report.
These include close monitoring of farmers to ensure the process of extracting the skin and meat “follows the least painful way” through the destruction of the retic brain before the skinning process.
He said traders were required to record their transaction details (including date, number of pythons, source person, remaining stock, purchase date, sold date and process involved) in a logbook, which would be monitored by Perhilitan.
“There is also a size limit restriction. Hunters are not allowed to catch snakes with snout-vent length (length from snout to anus) of less than 240cm.
“This requirement was introduced based on research findings by Perhilitan and IUCN SSC BPSG. It ensures that at least 50 per cent of the hunted females have reproduced.
“With the guidelines in place, we may be in a stronger position to request for access to the European market.”
The IUCN report argued that implementing size restrictions, but removing restrictions on the number of pythons being harvested, would eliminate incentives for illegal trade and allow for a system that can be regulated at all levels of the supply chain.
Fashion brands and buyers, it said, could implement sustainable sourcing policies, where only skins within agreed size limits were purchased.
On captive breeding, Wan Junaidi said it could contribute to the conservation of the species and tackle a reported US$1 billion black market for python skin.
“While the skins are exported to China, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, the meat is sold both locally or to a python meat processor for export. Python gall bladders are sought after in the domestic market for traditional Chinese medicine.”
The IUCN report stated that illegal trade was a problem because it avoided taxes, made accurate monitoring of harvests impossible, and jeopardised legal and sustainable python trade.
“The trick is finding a balance between consumption and sustainable supply of resources, as well as humane methods of harvesting,” Wan Junaidi said.
“This is what the ministry and Perhilitan aim to achieve.”
The reticulated python is listed on CITES Appendix II.
Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled to avoid utilisation incompatible with their survival.