The illegal trade in wildlife and its parts is a huge problem, and one of the biggest problems with it, is that often it can be very difficult to know what you can and cannot buy legally. The over-riding piece of advice to take away with you on holiday is that if in doubt, don’t buy it – and most importantly if it is or contains part of an animals, let it put doubt in your mind!
When most people think of the illegal trade in wildlife there are a number of different things which immediately pop in to their minds – we should all know that these are a big no when on holiday:
- Rhinoceros horn
- Anything with tiger parts in it
- Elephant ivory
However the illegal wildlife trade goes so much further than African poachers cutting the horns off some of the continents biggest, most beautiful and endangered animals, or finding ground up tiger penis in Asian markets selling traditional Chinese medicine items. There are a huge number of items which you might encounter while on holiday which fuel the decline of endangered animals in the wild – and saying “I didn’t know” generally won’t cut it if you are caught with them… So have a think before you decide to buy that exotic souvenir or have some funky local cuisine!
In many places throughout Africa and Asian you will come across restaurants (both rural and also in the cities) which may have illegal items blatantly on their menu or may even offer a number of “not on the menu” items. It is this type of trade which has led to the massive decline of the pangolin – a beautiful animal which is hunted relentlessly for its meat and also for its scales. Anything you come across containing or made from this animal is illegal and should be avoided (and where possible reported – an article about a handy reporting app coming soon).
Many “wild” animals may turn up on restaurant menus and if you see anything other than chicken, lamb, beef, mutton, pork, quail, fish etc let those alarm bells ring in your head. We ate in a restaurant in Vietnam near the Cao Dai Temple in Tay Ninh (a very popular and seemingly reputable tourist stop). Next to our table was a cage containing a snake, and I asked someone what the snake was for, and sure enough it was on the menu. The snake itself was a fairly common species but when in these places it can be difficult to know which species are endangered and what the actual local wildlife laws are… so its best to stay away. Bush meat is a huge business (you can find all sorts of illegal meats such as some of the larger pythons in Asian markets – we saw some in Borneo)… and it is making wildlife disappear fast!
This can be a very tricky one because there are types of ivory which are legal to own, but many (with the most common being rhino and elephant) are certainly not. Many people now use mammoth ivory, which has a beautiful colour to it, and is 100% legal. You can buy this at some airports such as Ghanzhou in China – if you really want to own some ivory please be responsible and buy legal items such as this, with the appropriate paperwork. HOWEVER whilst we all know that ivory is a beautiful material and the crafts which skilled artists make with them can be stunning, if you look around you can buy “faux ivory” made from plastic which looks identical… If its the beauty you are after, go for one of these – it doesn’t need to be real… and in fact shouldn’t be real!
We have all heard about traditional Chinese medicine, and as much as I respect the views and cultures of different countries, I am sorry to say that some of the claims made by this practice are absolutely nutty! I have had acupuncture and vacuum cupping sounds great but come on… ground up tiger penis or rhino horn to keep going in bed? There is a great little blue pill for that these days!
There are a lot of species used in traditional medicines which are endangered or on their way to becoming endangered due to this practice and nothing else! This includes ground up sea horses and many other animals. If you are abroad and not feeling too well, go to an actual pharmacy just like you would at home, and don’t think it would make a good present either. Half the time you may have no idea what you are even buying so how will you know if what you are buying is legal – I can assure you that not everything sold in Asian markets is legal!
There are also other “elixirs” which you need to be careful about. In Vietnam for example you can buy snake wine… Stay away! In the country they are sold in they generally aren’t illegal, but most countries do not allow you to import them back home because if you were to be honest with yourself would you be able to tell if the snakes in there are endangered? The people who bottle these don’t care and often endangered cobras end up inside. These will be confiscated from you on the way home and it is a practice which is becoming less common as it is widely being recognised as completely unnecessary.
Clothing & Accessories
Most of the time when you come across clothing and accessories made from animal parts they will be furs, skins and jewellery made from items such as pangolin scales or pieces of coral… You might think they will be fine because often you will find them in expensive shops or even direct from the farm, but you still need to make sure that it is accompanied by the correct paperwork, is captive bred, legally sourced and that there aren’t restrictions on quantity. To be honest you can get faux furs and skins these days so personally I think its an unnecessary market, however if you absolutely must, find the exact product you are looking at and do an internet search to find out more about it. Whilst you don’t want to be caught with illegal goods – even more importantly you don’t want to be contributing to the problem so make an informed decision!
Also it is important to note that this isn’t just a problem in Asian and Africa, but also a huge problem in Australia and America, where alligator and crocodile skins may be legally sourced but need to be accompanied by the correct paperwork.
When you are in sea side towns you will inevitably come across things like sea shells, sea horses and coral… But this is one area where the souvenir trade is really pushing species to the brink of extinction. Coral reefs are some of the most endangered habitats in the world – they face enough problems as it is with pollution and fishing, don’t let our need to have a beautiful piece of the ocean in our homes fuel it even further. Even if the items you found aren’t endangered (and do you really know if they aren’t) this sort of trade will help push them further in that direction… Also be careful what you pick up on the beach – a beautiful shell from the beach makes an amazing souvenir, but do you really know if you should be taking it home?
This is one final one which most people wouldn’t even consider, but it is equally an issue. So many plants are going extinct, and because they are not cute and cuddly we don’t always hear about them. Differences between legal and illegal can be very small and you could find things like rain sticks made from cactus plants in 2 shops next door to each other in Mexico. Slight differences in species means that perhaps you will have one which is fine and the shop next door used a species which is illegal to sell or has export quantity restrictions. If buying anything natural always just have a think or look in to it further – with smart phones Google is never far away!
A final thought… Don’t always just take the sales mans advice!