For years, reptile skin accessories have been a staple in high fashion. From snakeskin boots to alligator skin purses, western culture has grown enamored with using these scaly critters to look good, and for good reason; you can actually wear an apex predator on your feet! But what if I told you that buying those $1500 pair of reptile skin boots could actually help with conservation efforts and boost rural sustainable development? A paper recently published in the journal Biological Conservation outlines how the sustainable use of certain species can actually benefit both the species and humans.
Researchers from the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, studied the South American market for caiman, a close relative of alligators and crocodiles (Gelabert, Rositano, & González, 2017). Caiman, like many other reptiles, are sought out for their skin, which can be made into boots, bags, and other accessories.
Caiman populations suffered tremendously from illegal poaching in the mid 1900s, which instigated national and international regulations regarding caiman poaching. By the end of the 1900s, illegal trading of caiman was in decline. In response, the Argentine government enacted caiman ranching farms to control the population. The purpose of the farms was to sustain caiman populations by harvesting wild eggs, and releasing the hatchlings to grow in either their native habitat or a more controlled environment, thereby increasing the number of caiman reaching adulthood. Adult caiman could then be harvested and sold for their skin.
Initial ranches were able to start through government subsidies and investment by private investors. Egg collecting became a common practice, whereby individuals could bring caiman eggs to ranchers to be compensated. Ranchers were responsible for monitoring the animals, occasionally feeding them and ensuring they were healthy. Local inhabitants were also incentivized to support the caiman ranches; any individual who found and reported a nest was monetarily compensated. And above all else, given that the government now has a bigger stake in the ranches, management of the farms, caiman poaching, and illegal trading are all now much more heavily regulated.
Twenty years later, the ranching system still works due to simple economics. Recently, some landowners gave their land to ranchers for use as caiman farms. The landowners stated they don’t find it important to gain anything financially from lending out their land; simply being part of the conservation effort gives them enough positive publicity for it to be beneficial to them.
Avery McGaha works as program director at Green River Preserve and has worked on numerous conservation projects during his years in the field. “Understanding the group of stakeholders is crucial to making any big conservation plan a success”, he stated when asked about the effectiveness of large-scale conservation efforts. “Stakeholder mapping is a really important early step for any kind of species conservation that has both private and public land or interest involved.”
By incentivizing public and private stakeholders to work towards a common goal, the Argentine government has been able to effectively transform a once illegal, black market product into a sustainable commodity that not only benefits the species but also boosts the economy.
Skeptics of this “sustainable ranching” argue that there is limited applicability of this system, and while caiman may not be a feasible choice for most areas (including Texas), there are tons of other species where this system could be utilized. One such species is the bighorn sheep, whose horns can be sold on the black market for tens-of-thousands of dollars. Sustainable ranching of these sheep could help drastically reduce the rates of illegal poaching while providing new economic opportunity to ranchers.
Argentina has set the precedent for how to transform an endangered species into an economic opportunity. By providing incentives to the private parties involved, the Argentine government was able to effectively evoke public support for a national conservation movement. Implementation of similar conservation strategies worldwide could help protect thousands of endangered species around the world that currently face extinction. So the next time you see those reptile skin boots you’ve always dreamed of buying, think about how sustainability could actually make purchasing those boots a lot cheaper and a lot less environmentally harmful!
Gelabert, C., Rositano, F., & González, O. (2017). Sustainable use of caiman in Argentina: An analysis from the perspective of the stakeholders involved. Biological Conservation, 212, 357-365.