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Summer 2013 - Act•ionLine

by DAWN STARIN | Summer 2013


Complex Lives; Unjust Deaths

Would you pay $1,500 for a pair of Christian Louboutin python skin pumps?  How about $1,900 for a pair of men’s Prada lizard loafers?

If you think that’s high, try Barney’s lizard bags at $10,200, a Fendi python skin bag for $37,000, or a Gucci crocodile duffel bag, priced to sell at $48,000.  A Hermes crocodile t-shirt will set you back $91,500.  This skin trade is worth billions; python skins alone account for an estimated U.S. $1 billion annually.

For some, these “must-have” items conjure up elegance and style, sophistication and exclusivity.  They are “hot” and very “sexy” – if current fashion media, designers and various style icons are to be believed. Unfortunately, the more “hot” and “sexy” reptile accessories become, the more wild populations may be affected and the more reptiles will suffer.

Traffic, a wildlife trade monitoring organization, estimated that from 2000 to 2005, 3.4 million lizard, 2.9 million crocodile, and 3.4 million snake skins were imported into the European Union alone.

A more recent report, conducted by International Trade Centre (ITC), found that nearly a half million python skins are exported from southeast Asia each year, mainly for the European fashion industry.  The group also found that the illegal trade might be as extensive as the legal trade.

The market relies partly on “farms” and partly on animals taken from fragile ecosystems, where the depletion of one species can have profound effects on others.  No matter where they come from, though, or whether their skins are legally or illegally traded, these animals often experience extremely cruel deaths.  Some of the skins you see sitting in the shop windows or being paraded down the streets could very well have been stripped from their original owners while the animal was still alive.

Many reptile traders, and most of the people wearing reptile skins, appear to believe the creatures are “cold-blooded” and therefore not capable of feeling pain.  In fact, reptiles are ectothermic: their ability to regulate their body temperature is limited, so their own temperature is largely determined by the ambient air temperature. As they possess typical vertebrate nervous systems, and respond to painful stimuli similar to the way we do, there is every reason to believe that they feel pain much as we do, says Prof. Gordon M. Burghardt, previous editor of the Journal of Comparative Psychology and a world expert in reptilian behaviour. In fact, reputable veterinarians specializing in reptiles recognize the creatures’ ability to feel pain, and use analgesia (pain relief) during any potentially painful procedures.

Quite simply, reptiles do not lack physical sensation or sensitivity; they feel pain.

Weird and wonderful

I’m lucky. For years I was able to watch wild reptiles lead natural lives in a small forest on the western edge of Africa.  Hour after hour, month after month, year after year, I studied red colobus monkeys in The Gambia. But often, the weird and wonderful reptiles fascinated me most. My day was incomplete without a brief glimpse of reptilian life.

Every day a different story unfolded from the forest — from the sump in the woodland savannah where endangered dwarf crocodiles watched me jump over them as they retreated; from the lantana scrub that hid a dead python with a dead adult female colobus in its belly. From the base of a sinjango tree, where a young spitting cobra dribbled venom on my boots. Or the pool where Nile crocodiles fed on a large rock python. At another pool, an adult crocodile swam for days, with a mouth full of a dead green monkey, while six or seven baby crocodiles hitched rides on the crocodile’s head and back, and ripped off chunks of putrid monkey meat. Once, in a clearing in the woodland savannah, a python regurgitated a newborn bushbuck antelope.

One afternoon, as I leant against a fafajambo tree at the edge of a swamp, a black-sided skink crawled up my leg, sat on my lap and appeared to fall asleep. Another afternoon, as I sat on the ground watching the red colobus feasting on mendico fruits above my head, a black cobra slid into my backpack, slithered around my notebooks, water bottle, compass and muddy raincoat, and slid out again. These were my magical moments, my enchanted places. These were the things I never saw coming.

Rock pythons are in a class of their own. It is, after all, a bit unnerving to be confronted with yards upon yards of slithering muscle coming straight at you. Although their vision is poor and they don’t have ears, their senses are finely tuned. They can see infrared, feel vibrations, and sense chemical stimuli or scents with their super-sensitive forked tongues. Stretchy skin, mobile jaws, and more than 300 vertebrae enable them to catch and feed on prey their own body size, while their metabolism lets them to go months without eating. And their social life is no less interesting. Walking through a clearing one day I came across six pythons sliding over, under and around each other, taking part in a marvellous orgy that lasted for hours.

And the crocodiles? No less amazing. Often I would sit by a lily-pad covered pool and watch these dominance-obsessed reptiles engage in spectacular battles: spraying water, slapping tails, leaping out of the pool and crashing down again, chasing each other from shore to shore. Occasionally I was treated to a full-scale romantic interlude. Except for the sporadic snorting, their mating rituals are synchronized ballets of nudging, submerging, tail-waving, slapping and floating. These strange reptiles — gentle parents, fierce antagonists and balletic lovers — once shared the world with T.Rex and Brontosaurus. They used to be worshipped, but now they are hunted, slain, tanned and worn as shoes or carried as handbags by the fashionistas.

Huge monitor lizards climb trees, scuttle into underground burrows and termite mounds, waddle through the savannah and swim across pools. They make use of everypossible habitat type. They eat fruits, seeds, insects, eggs, birds, snails, frogs, small mammals, carrion and almost anything else they can fit into their mouths — until the dry season, when they fast. These sharp-toothed, stocky-tailed, strong-clawed creatures are well adapted to fight off predators — except the human kind.

Then there are the small chameleons, with tongues longer than their bodies. One day I almost stepped on two lime-green chameleons mating on a sandy grey path. Contorted into one lump, looking in two different directions, they could have become prey to any snake or bird, trod on by any human or antelope, or been attacked by the nearby line of safari ants.  Oblivious to all potential danger.

These reptiles — the rock pythons, the crocodiles, the monitor lizards, the chameleons — have extremely rich social lives. They are not automatons.

Year of the Snake

Reptiles are not endowed with soft, cuddly bodies or big round eyes. When they get attention from the general public, it’s often in contempt and horror. More often than not, they are appreciated only after they have been killed.  This was made clear to me far away from the Gambian forest, in the middle of trendy Islington, north London, where I overheard a female shop assistant and a male customer talking.

He: (Pointing to a row of wallets): Is that real crocodile skin?

She: No, unfortunately. They’re fake.

He: There is nothing like the real thing. I used to have a real one but it was stolen, so I need to replace it. Why would someone make fake ones?

She: I know. It’s such a shame. There is nothing like the real thing.

I wanted to explain, in a measured voice, that reptiles are declining throughout the world, that they can feel pain.  I wanted to change their perception of reptiles.

Instead I probably alienated them when my banshee voice took over, shouting:

Have you ever considered that it might be better for the reptiles if they’re left in their natural habitat and aren’t used for draining your bank balance and massaging your fashion ego?

2013 is the Chinese year of the snake. Will this be the year that snakes and their many reptilian relatives benefit from a new awareness?

Or will they continue to be slaughtered for vanity?

Dawn Starin, an honorary research associate at University College London, has spent decades doing field research in Africa and Asia. Her articles have appeared in publications as varied as The Humanist, The Ecologist, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Natural History, New Internationalist, New Statesman, and the New York Times. A different version of this piece has appeared in In These Times.


Act•ionLine Summer 2013

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