About to go on holiday? Think twice about your souvenirs

If you’re about to go away for your holidays soon and you think you will probably come home with a few souvenirs, then read on. Our friends at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) have told us why it’s so important that you should think twice about what you bring home with you.

Millions of people fly off each summer in search of sun and relaxation. And many thousands come home with souvenirs made from animal parts – which may often be illegal – often with no idea that they have done anything wrong. Most people don’t realise that the trade of endangered species is still a problem.

The illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be worth billions of dollars each year. While a large part of this trade is controlled by criminal gangs, much is also perpetrated by the hundreds of millions of people who go on foreign holidays each year and unwittingly buy souvenirs made from endangered species.

Unfortunately, souvenirs made from endangered species are often very openly sold in foreign resorts, so it can be hard for tourists to imagine they are doing any harm. In serious cases, however, tourists coming back home with such products in their luggage are risking hefty fines or even jail sentences. Items from endangered species that are commonly on sale include ivory, tortoiseshell, reptile skins, furs and some corals and seashells. It is illegal to bring many of these products into the country, while others may require complicated permits.

Each year, Customs agents seize tourist souvenirs made from endangered species, which are protected by the United Nations Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES has been signed by more than 181 countries, and regulates trade in about 35,000 species of animals and plants – both alive and dead.

Illegal Wildlife Property
Illegal Wildlife Property. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie
What to look out for
A high profile anti-ivory poaching campaign highlighted the problems in the early nineties but sadly poaching still continues today. At least 33,000 elephants are killed every year for their ivory – that’s roughly one in every 12 elephants that exists. Although most responsible travellers know about the threat facing elephants and would not purchase ivory, dealers are aware of this – and may describe it as “antique”. Purchasing this is risky unless you have a certificate to prove its origin – not only may you be contributing to the poaching of elephants, but you could have your item confiscated and even be arrested.

Other seemingly innocent items to look out for include tortoiseshell – which is usually not derived from a tortoise at all, but from the endangered hawksbill sea turtle. The turtle is endangered mainly because it has been hunted for its valuable shell. CITES has banned the trade in tortoiseshell since 1973.

Coral is another item to avoid – along with starfish, shells and other items made from marine life. Coral is the basis of entire ecosystems and takes decades to grow back; if it is illegally harvested to make jewellery and trinkets, this can have devastating effects on the fish and other species it supports.

A shahtoosh is a traditional shawl woven in the Himalayas. While very beautiful, it is made from the wool of the Tibetan antelope – also known as the chiru – which is now classified as endangered as a result of hunting for its wool. Visitors to Tibet and Nepal should avoid buying anything made of chiru wool.

Local handicraft sellers
Local handicraft sellers, Semien Mountains, Ethiopia. Photo by SarahTz
What you can do
  • Why not buy locally made handicrafts instead? Visiting local communities is a great way to find unique souvenirs – and support local craftspeople and traditions.
  • If you do see items being sold then report the seller to your tour operator or to the local police. For safety reasons it’s not advisable to confront the seller directly.
  • Make sure that your wildlife watching trip is operated responsibly. Responsible tours actively benefit anti poaching campaigns, for example, by funding patrols, helping to change community attitudes towards wildlife and by providing employment to local people. Some travel companies employ as guides ex-poachers who have turned their lives around – and can now put their expert animal tracking skills to good use.
Have a look at some of our wildlife holidays which increase the protection of endangered species.

We also have lots of wildlife volunteer projects available where you can play an active role in conserving wildlife.

For more information about IFAW and to support the Think Twice campaign click here.