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SOS Rhino : In the News : Current Rhino News : Buyer beware - your holiday souvenir could cost you dear

Buyer beware: your holiday souvenir could cost you dear


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' imprisonment.

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 buy."

"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 basis.

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 knowledgeable criminals.

"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 you expect.

* If you are unsure whether you need a permit to import wildlife souvenirs, check with the Global Wildlife Division of Defra (0117-372 8749, 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.



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