Italy and Mexico unveil blueprint for global traceability system for reptile skins

Crocodile skin

On 1 July 2015, the authorities of Italy and Mexico in charge of the application of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES) unveiled the proof of concept of a traceability system for reptile skins that will be capable of identifying individual specimens uniquely from the origin and tracing their skins or parts thereof in real time throughout the entire supply and regulatory chains.

Through the submission of a report prepared by the Responsible Ecosystems Sourcing Platform (RESP) presenting the results of the proof of concept and its validation, the scientific committee of CITES will analyse the main findings and put forward recommendations during a meeting of CITES Parties that will be held at the end of August in Tel Aviv, Israel.

With over 2 million reptile skins traded yearly from more than 25 CITES listed species of crocodilian, lizards and snakes, representing an estimated value of $6 billion, the reptile skins industry is a global industry comprising approximately 25 producing countries, 10 transit countries and with final products reaching every corner of the world.  UNIC, the Association of Italian Tanners’, underlined that “notwithstanding the reptile skins segment being a niche segment within the tanning industry [representing around 2% of total turnover of the sector], it plays a relevant role in the whole business chain as it represents the highest range material in the leather market pyramid.”

International trade in species such as reptiles can – if managed effectively and legally – become a tool for creating employment and valuable revenue opportunities for local communities, and provide economic incentives to deliver positive conservation and sustainable development outcomes. UNIC further highlighted that “an effective and viable traceability system would give further reassurances to clients, consumers and institutions on the full sustainability of the trade.”

Bruno Berken, General Manager of the Association of Manufacturers of Leather Bracelets, explained that watch strap manufactures make the link between tanners and major brands and, as such, they favour transparency and traceability throughout the supply chains. He added that "a traceability system of skins is the only sustainable route that will secure legality and will promote good practices in the capture or farming of exotic species. Only under these circumstances will the end consumer be reassured in its purchase, securing as such the value chain in the benefit of all."

However, the size and complexity of the industry has made it challenging to monitor and trace movements of species and skins globally.

The system which is being developed by RESP and a number of its technical partners will offer a holistic solution to tackle these challenges by bringing together three supportive technology platforms to capture the inherent uniqueness and diversity of nature:

1. a biometric image recognition system allowing for the establishment of a Unique Fingerprint Identifier (UFI) for a determined area of the skin based on macroscopic skin appearance identification of wrinkles of the surface of the skin, and the shape and relative centre positions of the scales;

2. a mobile phone application allowing for acquisition of images with the required parameters through specially developed algorythms, as well as the integration of other elements such as time and location tracking based on GPS. The application provides the capability for real-time or delayed upload, download and management of information to and from the information system;

3. a global information management system linked to national databases and CITES permitting protocols allowing e-permitting and cross-border sharing of information and monitoring in a fully secure environment.

According to Ralph Arbeid, Traceability Project Coordinator at RESP, “wildlife trafficking can be defeated by a transparent and active multi-stakeholder collaboration between science, technology, and socially responsible actors.” In this sense, it is expected that by using science and technology to accurately determine the legality of any part of the skin and confirming it against a global database in real time, immediate detection of illegal skins or products will be made possible and the required forensic evidence will be established to combat wildlife trafficking.

RESP is now developing the piloting phase where the system will be tested in a commercial and semi-controlled environment in Indonesia, Italy and Mexico for the next 10 to 18 months. This phase will aim at successfully tracing an estimated 3,000 skins of three species from the live animal through to the final product and validate the information capture, management and access protocols.

If the pilot testing is successful, the system could 700,000 skins encoded and more than 7 million transactions recorded by 2019.