three elephants

The couple carrying 16 pounds of ivory confiscated at SeaTac Airport was probably breaking the law intentionally. Most people know not to buy ivory or tiger parts. But sometimes people buy souvenirs without realizing that they are banned or harmful. Could your souvenirs be part of the problem? 

Common Mistakes

Ironically, tourists sometimes purchase items made from endangered species thinking that they are fake. Shoppers unfamiliar with the real thing can’t always tell the difference between ivory and regular bone or tortoiseshell and plastic. Few vacationers can identify protected rosewood, the most-trafficked endangered species in the world. Just because something is being sold openly does not mean that it is legal, and many legal souvenirs are unethical. Some very popular souvenirs are environmentally harmful. And if you get caught with banned items upon your return, authorities will not accept ignorance as an excuse.

Do Your Homework

It’s easier to avoid problems if you research what kinds of souvenirs are popular — and potentially problematic — before you leave home. Some items are completely illegal, while others may be permissible under certain circumstances and with proper documentation. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) travel guide outlines product categories that commonly support the illegal wildlife trade. Their law enforcement traveler tips page provides more detailed information. The U.S. State Department maintains a website for each nation. Look under “Local Laws & Special Circumstances” to find out whether the country you are visiting has restrictions on items not already covered by international law. If you still have questions, check with an FWS inspection office.

Shop Carefully

When you are traveling abroad, be cautious about any souvenir made from materials that could have been collected in the wild. Although agricultural products may also be subject to restrictions, you are not going to run afoul of international treaties by purchasing leather or jewelry made from domesticated species. When you are shopping, don’t be afraid to ask questions:

  • What is this made of?
  • Where did this item come from?
  • Does your country allow the sale and export of this product?
  • Do I need permits or other documents to bring this item to the United States?
antique bracelet made of ivory
The ivory bracelet may be an antique, but if you bring it home, you’re violating an international treaty that helps protect elephants and other endangered species.

If the answers they give don’t inspire confidence, well-meaning travelers should move on to a safer souvenir. Answers that raise red flags include:

  • “Yes, it’s real shell, but not the endangered kind.”
  • “This ivory is legal.”
  • “This tiger claw pendant is an antique.”

The illegal wildlife trade has surged in recent years thanks to the existence of legal channels for the sale of endangered species. For example, traffickers often present poached ivory as legal “stockpiled” products to buyers.

If you see illegal items being sold or have bought something questionable, contact local resource protection agencies or the CITES Management Authority. For permit information, visit the FWS permits website. If you bought something that is not permissible, do not bring it home with you. Even if you declare it, customs will confiscate the souvenir and you could be subjected to fines and even arrest.

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By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.