Explosive new footage and images supplied to Kindness Project by Farm Transparency Project reveal the appalling conditions in which iconic Australian saltwater crocodiles are being forced to live, on farms owned by luxury French fashion house Hermès.
Exotic skins are the skins of slaughtered reptiles and marine animals including crocodiles, alligators, stingrays, lizards and snakes. These skins are sold for phenomenally high prices, but cost more to these animals than any price tag can represent – these animals lose their freedom, their safety and their lives.
Many exotic skin products are made and sold under the guise of ‘conservation’, claiming that by allowing people to slaughter these animals, their populations will be protected. The claim is that by putting a dollar value on the lives of these animals, enough will be kept alive and breeding so that industry profits and slaughter can be sustained. This is a deeply problematic and cruel way of thinking about individual animals and species conservation that does not consider the wellbeing of them.
We simply do not need to make bags, boots, belts, wallets or any other products out of them. There are great alternatives available which are kinder, and better for the environment.
Crocodiles in Australia
Native Australian saltwater crocodiles are trapped on factory farms, spending their lives captive, mostly in a metal caged concrete pen not much larger than themselves. These farms supply luxury fashion labels including Hermès and Louis Vuitton.
The codes of practice for crocodile farming require ‘raising stock’ to receive only:
– 0.25 to 0.5m2 of space for individual crocodiles who are 1m long
– 0.5 to 1m2 of space for individuals who are 2m long
These conditions are boring, unstimulating and maddening for crocodiles who, in the wild, ‘surf’ water currents, travelling over 10km at a time and even hundreds of kilometres over a period of weeks.
These factory farmed reptiles can naturally live for an average of 70 years, though often living for far longer. However, they are slaughtered for the sake of fashion between 2 to 3 years old.
Crocodiles can legally be shot in the head, and if they are under two metres long, they can be slaughtered by first having their spinal cord severed with one blow to the head with a hammer or other tool, and then killed by a rod being pushed into their brain. Almost no crocodiles are slaughtered when they are old enough to be more than two metres long.
Having lived in Australia for at least 100 million years, these ancient reptiles nearly went extinct in the 1970s due to hunting for their skins. At the time, only 3,000 crocodiles were left. Today, crocodiles are protected from hunting in most instances, however their protections were altered to make their factory farming legally accepted. While their protection has seen the crocodile population increase dramatically, today, estimates indicate more crocodiles live short, miserable lives in confinement on these factory farms than in their natural habitat.
Crocodiles and alligators across the world
In other parts of the world, crocodiles and alligators are also factory farmed. Across Asia and some parts of Africa (where the Nile crocodile lives), crocodiles are kept in concrete pits and farms. If large male crocodiles cannot retreat from each other during breeding season, they will fight and seriously injure, if not kill each other. Again, in these farms there is little to no enrichment or stimulation for these intelligent animals, who have been found to even enjoy playing.
Shocking investigations into these farms, including one Vietnamese farm which supplied Louis Vuitton at the time, show crocodiles being skinned alive. Live skinning, as well as prolonged and painful killing has been exposed in Vietnam, Zimbabwe and the United States of America.
These animals are often slaughtered by having their heads sliced open, and a scalpel plunged down their spine. Some have their necks dislocated first, though this does not immediately kill the animals. Crocodiles have been recorded breathing and moving for long periods of time after their ‘slaughter’, no doubt experiencing unimaginable pain.
A crocodile who is being slaughtered for their skin.
Snakes and lizards
Snakes and lizards are generally ‘harvested’ – captured and then killed – from their natural habitat in the wild, however there are also some factory farms for these animals.
Commercial farms for these animals exist in south-east Asia and China, but these systems are often also used to illegally ‘launder’ wild pythons who are protected from being snatched from the wild. Each year, 300,000 reticulated pythons are ‘harvested’ from the wild in Indonesia and Malaysia to meet the demand of the international exotic leather trade. It can be estimated that a further 700,000 snakes are farmed worldwide annually.
Snakes are most often stunned by a blow to the head with a machete handle, before a hose is forced between their jaws and they are filled up with water. These snakes swell up like balloons, and they die impaled on sharpened hooks, hanging from roofs. Snakes have also been documented being cut open with scissors.
Also known as ‘shagreen’, the skins of stingrays are used and sold under the ‘exotic skins’ banner, too. These sea animals are not commercially farmed (yet, there is some suggestion that this may change) but captured and slaughtered from the sea.
In the wild, stingrays can naturally live an average lifespan up to 25 years old, and can grow up to over six and a half feet. It is nearly impossible to know how these magnificent animals are slaughtered as slaughter methods are not regulated.
A report from the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) suggests that a quarter of stingrays are threatened with extinction. Different species of stingray can be hard to differentiate; a vulnerable species could look almost identical to one categorised as being of ‘least concern’. The Mekong freshwater stingray for example, has experienced a population decline of 50% over the past 20 or so years.
Environmental concerns of factory farming crocodiles
Factory farming is not sustainable, and the farming of crocodiles is no exception.
Factory farmed crocodiles are fed other factory farmed animals, like chickens. As with raising cattle for meat and leather, this is a system which is not only cruel, but inefficient and wasteful. Grain must be fed to chickens, who are fed to crocodiles, who are slaughtered for skin and meat products.
Further, the skins of ‘living dinosaur’ crocodiles are extremely tough and of course will rot, so after they are slaughtered, their skins are tanned with chromium overseas. Chromium is a toxic carcinogen, and leather tanneries around the world often pollute the substance into local waterways.
Exotic skin industries thrive under claims that they are sustainable, because they ‘protect’ the species from ‘endangerment and extinction’. However, a belief that animals are only worth protecting if they are worth money dead is misguided and violent.
We do need to protect communities from harm which can come from reptiles, and we do need to protect wild populations. However, ignoring the suffering of individual wild animals for the sake of their population is not the answer. Further, making some exotic skin products legal makes space for mislabelled, illegal wild animal skin trade.
More effective ways to protect communities include supporting community awareness and education programs about these reptiles, and to further support eco-tourism. Eco-tourism allows for communities and visitors to appreciate the beauty of nature and wild animals without harming and killing them. These industries can be extremely fruitful and beneficial to human communities.
The illegal wildlife trade is greatly bolstered up by luxury fashion. In fact, the fashion industry is the largest importer of illegal wildlife in the USA, and ‘has the potential to impact the status of wild populations’. What does this have to do with humans though? 75% of emerging infectious diseases are transmitted from animals to humans. Conservationists have given warning that the trade of exotic skins for fashion can and very well may contribute to the spread of diseases in humans.
We’ve already seen tens of thousands of mink be slaughtered in multiple countries, because factory farms full of them had COVID-19. Wet markets like the one which COVID-19 likely originated sell live animals for both meat and skins, including reptiles. Luxury fashion should not be put above the wellbeing of animals, or public safety.
Capitalising on poor communities
Work in the exotic skins industry is often dangerous, and in fact, a toddler in Cambodia distressingly died, eaten by crocodiles on her family’s crocodile farm which was not secure or safe for children and workers. The child’s father immediately sold the farm, stating, ‘I do not want to risk another child’s life’. These poor farms are producing enormous profits for Western brands, but the safety of those on them is not ensured.
As Joshua Katcher wrote for Business of Fashion; ‘the marginalised and indigenous communities who often supply reptile skins can often be harmed by dependency upon the whims of fickle fashion industry trends… It’s telling to see that 96 percent of the value of exotic skins is captured by the European fashion industry, with hunters and local communities sometimes making just 0.5 percent of the final value of a high-end handbag.’
Bags made from snake skins can be made in countries like Vietnam for the equivalent of up to 33 AUD, but in Western fashion houses they sell for up to over 3,500 AUD. This sort of price difference is exploitative, clearly undermining and ripping off those who are producing these cruel products – out of financial necessity.
Again, these communities could be supported far more effectively, and without harming reptiles and humans alike.
Fortunately, there are plenty of animal-friendly alternatives, and they’re largely made of PU synthetic leather. The material has less than half the environmental impact of cow skin leather, according to the Global Fashion Agenda. There are plenty of other innovative, sustainable materials too. We’ve curated a list of some of our favourite ethically made, sustainable, vegan products that render exotic skins a cruel thing of the past.
Luxtra created this clutch made from ‘fruit leather’, from a material based in mangoes which otherwise would simply be discarded. 45% of all fruit grown globally is discarded between field and plate, and 40% of fruit never makes it to the shelves due to “cosmetic imperfections”, so this is a great sustainable solution. Far better than a slaughtered crocodile!
Kinds of Grace supports environmental animal rights organisations and projects (including Dominion Movement), and ethically makes vegan bags. This one is made of PU synthetic leather, and has the same beautiful pattern as a snakeskin bag, without the cruelty and violence.
Sans Beast is an Australian brand which supports Edgar’s Mission Farm Sanctuary, and creates stunning, cutting edge designs, without animals. With both faux snake and crocodile styles available, this brand is a friend to reptiles.
Image from Farm Transparency Project’s editorial, featuring Sans Beast bags.
Gunas is an innovative brand which has pioneered the use of many sustainable materials, including MulbTex. This is a completely plastic free material made from a cotton base, coated with mulberry leaf pulp, which is naturally shiny. It’s light, waterproof, and ages well.
This vegan brand, Svala, produces their bags ethically and with the use of sustainable materials, including those which are recycled, as well as Pinatex, cork and polyurethane produced sustainably in Italy. 10% of the profits made by Svala are donated to charity, and the brand carbon offsets their shipping carbon footprint.