French luxury group Kering, owner of leathercraft brands such as Gucci, has joined forces with two international trade and conservation bodies to try to protect pythons, they said Friday.
In a joint statement, Kering, the International Trade Centre (ITC) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said the goal was "improved sustainability" for python-skin exports from Southeast Asia.
Snakeskin is a raw material for leather fashion goods, much in demand from an increasingly globalised middle class.
The legitimate trade in python skins is valued at $500 million (372 million) a year, said Alex Kasterine of the ITC, which is backed by the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation.
But underground commerce is thought to be worth the same amount, trade and environment expert Kasterine told reporters.
That has left trade and conservation experts struggling to assess the real scale of commerce in python skins and its impact on the species.
"There is very little information on the number of skins that are collected, the number of pythons that are collected from the wild and whether this is a sustainable uptake or not," said Kasterine.
"This is important in terms of the growing demand for python skins for the luxury fashion business, for accessories such as handbags and shoes," he added.
Over the next three years, the new "Python Conservation Partnership" will research the trade in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, focusing on issues such as species conservation and animal welfare.
The project will also seek to establish which pythons used in the industry are wild and which are captive-bred.
"We hope that this initiative will positively impact the conservation of the two biggest python species of Southeast Asia which are affected by the python skin trade -- the Burmese and the Reticulated Python," IUCN expert Tomas Waller said in a statement.
In addition, it will look at the role of the trade in providing a livelihood for tens of thousands of people in Southeast Asia's forest-edge communities, many of them among the poorest in their countries for whom snake-hunting is a key source of income.
Most skins are sent to Singapore, while European fashion houses account for 97 percent of import values.
Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer at Kering, said in a statement that the sector was convinced the pythons trade needed urgent improvements.
"Sustainable sourcing and traceability of the trade is of utmost importance to us," she said.
In addition to Gucci, Kering's brands also include Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga.