Deep in the Indonesian jungle, reticulated pythons are being slaughtered by the thousands. Not quickly, or humanely — but tantalisingly, agonisingly and monstrously slowly.
First, they are smashed on the head with a mallet — not hard enough to kill them, just to stun them, which makes it possible to wrench their jaws open and shove a hosepipe down their throats.
Their bodies are then filled with water and secured with elastic bands at both ends.
This bloats them like balloons and makes it easier — once their heads are nailed to a meat hook and a couple of incisions have been made — to skin them with a few hard yanks, before their still-live bodies are thrown onto a pile.
But this doesn’t kill them.
Because pythons have such low metabolic rates — their heartbeat can be as slow as 12 beats per minute — they live on and on, after being bludgeoned, inflated and skinned. Once in this state, it can take a couple of days of excruciating pain before they die of shock or dehydration.
What possible reason could there be to make the world’s longest snakes suffer in such a gruesome manner?
The fashion industry, of course! Namely, expensive, high-end, exotic-skins fashion — python bags, belts, shoes, boots, trainers, wallets, purses, credit card holders, baseball caps, you name it.
Little thought is given to the pythons, still writhing in pain for up to 48 hours. The only thing that matters are the reticulated python’s supple skin and diamond patterns, which are lovingly cleaned, carefully coiled and dried, before being sold for as little as R52 per kilo.
Last month, Stephanie Scolaro, 26, an heiress and part-time swimwear model who couldn’t possibly have needed the money, was sentenced to 160 hours community service for illegally importing £17,000 (R298K) worth of pink and gold python skin baseball caps.
She sold them for £450 (R7 800) a pop through her own website and via a Mayfair boutique.
She insisted that she had no idea that any snakes had suffered, that she was an animal-lover who would never hurt a flea, far less skin it alive and turn it into an unnecessary fashion accessory. Had she known, she claimed, they were illegal, she would never have imported them.
Noble words, perhaps, and ones that probably reflect most people’s views.
‘Snakes aren’t cute and cuddly in the same way foxes and rabbits are,’ says Yvonne Taylor, of the animal rights group PETA. ‘But just like mammals, they are sensitive to pain and suffering.’
Yet the traffic in exotic animals for flesh and skins is the third largest — after weapons and drugs — in the world. Every year, about 500,000 python skins are imported from South-East Asia to Europe legally, complete with the correct paperwork from CITES.
In the wild a Burmese python will cover a territory of 12 kms and can expect to live for up to 30 years.
On a farm, a reticulated python — which can grow to about 9 meters and weigh up to 120 kg — can barely uncoil and is lucky if it makes it past 6 months.
According to Clifford Warwick, a biologist and former snake farm investigator, many are kept in a ‘racking system in what look like haberdashery drawers in a vast warehouse’.
He adds: ‘Each tiny drawer contains one snake and the only natural light comes from a tiny opaque window at the front.’
When they grow out of this, they are transferred into wire crates, with hundreds of other snakes and, if they live long enough, to an individual large crate. The fact is that snakes wither in captivity. They are prone to parasites, bacterial infections, problems with their immune systems and stress.
They are fed on rats, mice and bits of chicken, but grow slowly — about 3 meters in three years, which is far too long a time for most snake farmers’ balance sheets.
So they pay locals to hunt wild reticulated pythons — which are easy to catch with the help of a stick, a mallet and a hessian sack — and drop them off by the sack-load to be slaughtered.
With today’s obsession in the West with veganism, vegetarianism, ethical food production and sustainable fashion, one might wonder who on earth would want to buy ‘luxury snakeskin accessories’? As PETA’s Yvonne Taylor puts it: ‘We’re already moving from what’s in your fridge to what’s in your wardrobe.’
Some fashion houses have now stopped using exotic skins.
In December, Chanel, which previously sold handbags, coats and shoes made from snake, alligator and stingray skins, announced it would not use exotic animal pelts in future collections. Flamboyant designer Vivienne Westwood has vowed to steer clear of exotic skins. Diane Von Furstenberg has followed suit.
However, Paris-based Kering, the company behind brands including Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen, is heading fast in the other direction.
In 2017, and to great fanfare, the company opened its own python farm in Thailand. Bosses promised that the snakes would be raised in ‘the best conditions for animals, farmers and the eco system’ before they are turned into shoes, bags and belts.
According to Clifford Warwick, there is no evidence that the conditions or slaughter methods used by these farms — in this case thought to be drowning in a crate — are much better.