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‘Exotic’ Skins Trade for Luxury Goods Can Spark Future Epidemics, Conservationists Say

Raising and selling “exotic” animals like alligators, pythons and stingrays for luxury goods such as bags and shoes increases the risks of dangerous virus outbreaks such as COVID-19, animal-rights activists and conservationists warn.

Roughly 60 percent of all human diseases and 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, meaning they originate from animals, scientists say, yet the wildlife trade remains one of the most lucrative sectors in the world at 100 billion euros ($112 billion) in the European Union alone, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Although a wet market in Wuhan, China, is believed to have been the source of the coronavirus now wreaking havoc across the globe, such marketplaces are just a “microcosm of the world,” according to Nature Needs More, an Australian nonprofit.

Not only is the breeding of exotic species encouraged globally through legal captive facilities, but even Italy’s vaunted luxury retail sector is also “teeming with fur, exotic leather and feathers” that are labeled as byproducts of the meat industry—often proudly so.

“As the apparel industry tries to project its good corporate citizen image, via the evolving sustainable fashion mantra, it is handy for them to use the story that your exotic leather handbag, shoes or belt are just a byproduct of the food industry,” the group said in a statement.

Indeed, on a recent investigatory trip to Milan, luxury fashion brands were “happy to use their connection with the exotic meat consumption in Asia as a play to promote their sustainable fashion credentials,” Nature Needs More said.

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Further, endangered species also contribute to the “mind-boggling value” of the luxury market, despite the fact that trade in flora and fauna is the second-biggest threat to species survival after habitat loss, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

While pressure is mounting on countries like China to permanently ban wildlife trading, Nature Needs More says it expects interest groups to aggressively lobby governments to reopen legal trade and supply chains once the coronavirus crisis is over.

But corruption abounds, the group said, noting that the current Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) trade permit and management system remains woefully inadequate and opaque.

“Attention may now be on China, but it is the global business and trade community that has shown no leadership in modernizing the system that facilitates and monitors this worldwide legal trade in endangered species,” Nature Needs More said. “Only by investing in and upgrading the inadequate CITES trade permit and management system that facilitates the international legal trade can supply chains be made transparent to address the future biosecurity risks inherent in any trade in exotic wildlife.”

Long a champion of animal welfare, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), too, is calling for a shutdown of exotic animal farms.

Alligators and crocodiles can harbor zoonotic pathogens—such as salmonella, West Nile virus and E. coli—that are harmful to humans, the animal-rights group said.

PETA investigators found that alligators at a Texas farm, for instance, were kept in “fetid water and dark sheds” without sunlight, fresh air, clean water or basic medical care.

“Workers had to feel around in foul water with their hands and feet to try to catch the struggling animals,” it wrote in a blog post Friday. “With little or no safety equipment given to them, they were often bitten and injured.”

Another PETA exposé of a farm in Vietnam revealed similar cramped and filthy conditions. The animals, the group said, often took out their aggression on one another, and injuries commonly led to infection and disease.

Even before the crisis, a number of luxury stalwarts, including Diane von Furstenberg, Chanel and Victoria Beckham, were already eschewing exotic skins. Last October, the state of California outlawed the sale of all exotic skins, specifically alligator and crocodile. But more must join their ranks, PETA said.

“As long as humans continue to raise and kill animals for their skin, these filthy farms will continue to be breeding grounds for lethal diseases,” PETA said.