About to go on holiday? Think twice about your souvenirs

Millions of holidaymakers fly off each summer in search of sun and relaxation. And at the end of those holidays, many thousands of people come home with souvenirs that are made from endangered 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 major 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 travellers who unwittingly buy products made from endangered species.

Unfortunately, souvenirs made from endangered species are often very openly sold around holiday resorts, so it can be hard for tourists to imagine they are doing any harm. In serious cases, however, if you come back home with such products in your luggage then you could be risking a hefty fine or even a jail sentence. Items from endangered species that are commonly on sale include ivory, tortoiseshell, reptile skins, furs, and some corals and seashells. Many countries now prohibit these items from being brought in, 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. Sometimes animals will be bred just so their body parts can be harvested.

Illegal Wildlife Property
Illegal Wildlife Property. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Wildlife souvenirs to avoid

A high-profile anti-ivory poaching campaign highlighted the problems in the early 1990s but sadly poaching still continues today. At least 20,000 elephants are killed every year for their ivory – that’s roughly one in every 20 elephants that exist. 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 really important 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.

Forests everywhere are over-exploited, and often illegally logged, with corresponding dangers to the biodiversity they support. In particular, try to avoid any products made from rosewood – all 300 species are now protected by trade restrictions imposed by CITES – but for ruthless traffickers that just makes it more valuable.

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 troubling 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 by proving that they are more valuable alive than dead.

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