by Nicole Swengley
July 6, 2002
What price a holiday memento? If it's endangered or illegal the
cost can be huge
IF YOU walk through the "Nothing to Declare" channel
at Heathrow holding a 6ft stuffed crocodile under your arm, you
can hardly be accused of smuggling. Such blatant action suggests
you do not realise that you are doing anything wrong.
That was clearly the view taken by a holidaymaker returning recently
from South Africa, who had no idea that a criminal prosecution could
result from bringing the stuffed croc into Britain without a special
permit. The crocodile was confiscated and the owner fined.
"Tourists bring all sorts of animals and birds back from their
holidays, completely unaware that they are endangered species,"
a customs officer told me. "Live baby crocodiles, lizards,
scorpions, snakes, parrots and young falcons are often seized, but
I think the most gruesome souvenirs we find are the dried monkey
heads and gorilla hands from West Africa."
It's amazing how many holidaymakers fall into the trap of importing
illegal goods, and in doing so they make themselves liable to hefty
fines or criminal prosecutions - to say nothing of the destruction
caused to the environment they have visited. They could even incur
the maximum penalty for smuggling endangered species - seven years'
Last year customs officials seized 250,226 live specimens including
birds of prey, scorpions and a live gibbon. They also confiscated
3,832 parts or derivatives of endangered species including oriental
medicines and caviar from unauthorised sources, along with 1,420
plants including tree ferns and orchids.
Customs officers are aware that holidaymakers may bring back banned
items through simple ignorance of the laws. It's all too easy when
visiting an exotic market or beachside stall to forget that there
are strict rules on what you can and cannot bring into Britain.
Nor is it just market traders who can lead you into trouble. Shops
at reputable hotels and airports have also been known to sell items
that could get you on the wrong side of the law.
Items such as ivory carvings and jewellery, tortoiseshell sunglasses,
leopardskin or tiger-skin coats and shawls made of shahtoosh, the
wool from the critically endangered Tibetan antelope, are all banned.
Wild orchids and cacti, coral necklaces, queen conch shells, snakeskin
boots, live animals and birds require special export and import
permits. Even a crocodile skin watchstrap bought from an unauthorised
source, or bulk-buying of caviar, can land you in trouble.
"Our advice is not to buy souvenirs made from animal derivatives,"
said a spokesman for Customs and Excise. "You will be told
all sorts of stories - that the animal died naturally, that you
don't need an export licence, that your purchase helps the local
economy. But even the smallest ivory pendant means that an animal
has had to die. And far from helping the local economy you are actually
doing the reverse, because local people will carry on killing if
they know that there is a market for these goods."
More than 150 countries, including the UK, have signed up for the
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites),
which aims to protect endangered fauna and flora by controlling
international trade in products made from at-risk animals and plants.
More than 800 species are banned, and trade in a further 30,000
items is strictly controlled by Cites and EU legislation.
But there's a snag. While Cites restricts the movement of specified
goods between member countries, it doesn't make their sale within
a country illegal - even if that country has signed the agreement.
Many items on Cites's list are openly on sale in Africa and Asia,
while international trading in banned wildlife products is known
to take place in Singapore and the Gulf States.
Hot spots for unwary shoppers include Sri Lanka and the Maldives
(turtleshell jewellery), the Philippines (giant clams), Thailand
and Indonesia (orchids), the Caribbean (coral) and Mexico (wild
cacti and seeds). Tourists should also shop carefully in Egypt,
Kenya, Nigeria, Tanzania, South Africa and the Seychelles.
Souvenir Alert, a campaign run by the World Wide Fund for Nature
(WWF) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Defra), aims to raise awareness among British holidaymakers of
the Cites controls.
"The illegal wildlife trade involves thousands of species
annually and is second only to the illegal trade in drugs,"
said a WWF spokeswoman.
"Every year unwitting tourists bring back wildlife items such
as coral, ivory, animal skins and turtleshell products, unaware
that importing them is either illegal or requires a special permit.
In doing so, they expose themselves to the possibility of prosecution
or a hefty fine. Ignorance is not a defence. If in doubt, don't
"Tourists could be placing some of our most beautiful and
unusual wildlife on the road to extinction, all for the sake of
an exotic gift," said Stuart Chapman, head of species at WWF.
"The world population of tigers, for example, has been reduced
to 5,000, with fewer than 20 South China tigers left in the wild."
He says that traditional Chinese medicines, often bought by tourists,
have played a major part in their demise. Similarly, 96 per cent
of the world's black rhinos have disappeared since 1970 because
of the demand for rhinoceros horn.
Astonishingly, wildlife products such as rhino horn or deer musk
can be worth more than Class A drugs or gold on an ounce-for-ounce
Illegal trade in wildlife is now a serious international crime,
with annual global profits estimated at about £3.5 billion
- a figure that rises each year. This is why the UK's first National
Wildlife Crime Intelligence Unit was set up in April under the auspices
of the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS).
John Abbott, director general of NCIS, explained: "Wildlife
crime is motivated by profit and greed and the perpetrators display
other hallmarks of organised crime. As with art and antiques, rare
species of flora and fauna command exceptionally high prices on
the criminal market and are often stolen to order by devious yet
"Britain is not only a consumer of endangered species but
also a principal point of entry to Europe. This is why we have a
responsibility to help bring this pernicious trade under control."
The damage done by buying dodgy souvenirs doesn't stop at indigenous
wildlife. Historical and archaeological sites have suffered from
looting for centuries, and cultural artefacts continue to disappear
from temples, graves, museums and other important sites around the
world, with many items stolen to order.
While the trade in black market antiquities is generally confined
to unscrupulous dealers and collectors, it's possible for unwary
holidaymakers to run into trouble. Replicas flogged by hawkers at
archaeological sites have occasionally turned out to be genuine,
with unwitting tourists arrested at airports for the illegal export
of cultural artefacts.
So think twice before you buy that hand-painted icon or that pretty
turtleshell necklace on holiday this year. It could cost more than
* If you are unsure whether you need a permit to import wildlife
souvenirs, check with the Global Wildlife Division of Defra (0117-372
8749, www.ukcites.gov.uk). For a Souvenir Alert leaflet, or if you
have information on wildlife smuggling, call 01483 426111 and ask
for the WWF Eyes & Ears Action Pack.