13 ways to shop so they don’t drop

Endangered species don't make good souvenirs

When an endearing child with big wide eyes implores you to buy the shell necklace her mother made; when a friendly man in a funky bar wants you to join in the local ‘tradition’ of knocking back a shot of snake wine; or when the market stalls have an abundance of very attractive tortoise shell bracelets, hair combs and spectacle frames for sale…what do you do?

It’s so easy to just to go with the flow and partake in what’s on offer. But do you realise your simple action may be negatively impacting the survival of a species? And did you know that in many countries you would actually be engaging in illegal activity by purchasing or consuming wildlife products?

The current demand for wildlife products, often from threatened or endangered species, is unprecedented – and the consumers are a mix of those who choose to profit from the trade and ‘regular people’, who purchase items unwittingly, without awareness of where they may have come from or the consequences of their consumption.

You want to be in a third category – the socially and environmentally conscious consumer – who wants to see wildlife flourishing in the wild, as nature intended!

Here’s a guide to what you may encounter during your travel adventures and items that we highly recommend you bypass.

1. On the dinner plate – avoid restaurants that make a feature of endangered or ‘exotic’ species on their menus and don’t purchase or consume such meats. In Vietnam, it may be called ‘deer’ or ‘wild meat’ on the menu – and could include Samba deer, monitor lizards and even monkeys – all endangered creatures due to loss of habitat and often directly because of trade and consumption. If you have the opportunity, talk to the owner and explain the reasons why you do not want to support their business.

Pangolins sold for meat at markets

There’s nothing appetising about eating endangered pangolins. Photo © TRAFFIC

2. Pangolins – these scaly anteaters are native to Asia and Africa. Due to the demand for pangolin in Vietnam and China, this species is highly endangered in both countries and illegal wildlife traffickers have to source pangolins from countries such as Indonesia to sell to restaurants. Often restaurants will tell customers that the pangolins they sell are farmed. Pangolins are very shy and sensitive creatures and cannot be farmed, as they are most likely to die in captivity. Pangolin scales can often be seen at traditional medicine shops and are advertised as a treatment for burns and helping with respiratory problems, such as asthma. The sale and ownership of this wildlife product is illegal.

3. Snakes alive! – whether it’s snake skin, snake wine or other snake products, surveys have shown that what may be claimed to be farmed, is often taken directly from the wild. Buying any snake products, especially in developing countries, creates continued demand for snake products and hurts the populations of wild snake species. And as for snake charmers – there’s good reason this practice was banned in India back in the 70s. Snakes are taken from the wild, usually have their teeth removed and their venom ducts pierced to impede their natural defence mechanism, and that ‘dance’ is more a sway of fear!

4. She sells sea shells – and they may well have been taken from the sea while still inhabited by live creatures. Buying shells or coral items (often used in jewellery and ornaments) damages the marine ecosystems and is almost always unsustainable. Coral reefs are made up of millions of tiny animals and take centuries to grow. They are in decline from climate change, boating and other human impacts – so don’t add to this damage.

5. Turtle or tortoise? – items made from either creature should be avoided. Bekko, the shell of the highly endangered hawksbill turtle, has been in use for centuries to make ornaments such as combs, bangles, spectacle frames and letter openers – and is commonly sold in coastal areas and major Asian cities. The sale and purchase of bekko is highly illegal and purchase could result in significant financial penalties and even jail time if these items are caught in your possession.

6. Ivory – it’s hard to fathom that the price of an ‘attractive’ necklace or pair of chopsticks may be the death of an elephant. Despite humanity’s love of magnificent elephants, 20,000 – 25,000 African elephants are being killed per year – with their tusks commonly ending up being used to make different types of figurines, jewellery, chopsticks and other ornamental pieces. While the sale and ownership of ivory may be allowed in the country you are visiting, it is completely illegal to take ivory across international borders and any tourist caught possessing ivory products could face strong financial penalties and gaol time.

Snake wine in Asia by TRAFFIC

Name your poison – the perils of drinking snake wine. Photo © TRAFFIC

7. Keep a lid on it! – jars containing all manner of species, including lizards, geckos, crocodiles and snakes, will often be displayed in traditional medicine or souvenir shops. Store owners will tout the medical benefits of drinking these animal wines, including increased vitality and sexual stimulation, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any scientific proof or medical research to back up these claims. There are increasing amounts of these products on sale in Indochina, with much of it a fairly recent phenomenon. It is likely that this trend has increased due to rising local incomes and demand from tourists, as these products are most often seen in areas where foreigners visit or shop. While swigging from a bottle with a snake in it that looks like a cobra, might impress your friends – the animals in the jars have most likely been taken from the wild, decimating local populations and upsetting the ecological balance. That’s nothing to brag about.

8. Teeth of the tiger – sadly it’s not uncommon in Asia to come across souvenir shops or vendors selling tiger teeth and claws to put on necklaces. Though the vast majority of these ‘tiger teeth’ are fake, some stores do sell real tiger products. This includes skins, bones, claws and teeth. Any trade in tiger products is illegal locally and internationally and any tourists that purchase such items are risking significant fines or harsher penalties.

9. Traditional or complementary medicine (TM or TCM) – may contain ingredients from endangered species such as tiger, bear, monkey, and other wildlife. Most of these products will be illegal to bring back to your home country and their true medicinal value can be questionable in many cases.

10. Aphrodisiac or ‘vitality’ increaser? – a myriad of wildlife products may be sold with this claim – dried sea horses, dried tokay geckos, frogs, and bats – though not necessarily illegal, purchase of these animals only decreases the species natural populations as most are taken directly from the wild.

11. Wrap not!shahtoosh shawls and other similar garments are made from the wool of chiru, a highly endangered antelope. Three to five chirus are slaughtered to obtain the wool for one shawl.

12. Skin and bones – the trade in the skin, bones or claws of tigers, leopards, bears and other endangered species is highly illegal in most countries. Rhino horn, which is made from keratin just like your finger nails, is valued as traditional medicine and a symbol of status and power in Vietnam. To fuel this trade, more than 1000 rhinos have been killed in South Africa alone last year and are heading for extinction unless the trade is stopped.

Market stall selling plants and timber

Don’t go out on a limb to buy rare plants. Photo © TRAFFIC

13. Orchids and other plants – there is a growing market for these in Asia for both local and international buyers. As demand for these charismatic plants increases, all orchid species are seeing huge population declines. The purchase and export of orchids in Vietnam requires a CITES permit, which most visitors will not have enough time to obtain. Without proper permits and with many western country’s restrictions on bringing in plants and/or soil, tourists may face penalties when bringing plants back to their home country.

You can help support TRAFFIC’s work to stop the trade in endangered species through The Intrepid Foundation. All donations to The Intrepid Foundation will be matched by Intrepid Travel up to AU$400,000 in each financial year and a maximum of AU$5,000 per donor in each financial year.

For more information on these issues – visit TRAFFIC and you can join the conversation at: facebook.com/Trafficsea

Photo of turtle shell souvenirs on display (TOP). Credit TRAFFIC.

About the author

Jane Crouch - Jane is a responsible business guru who writes about all aspects of how travel can bring positive environmental, social and economic benefits. Informed through travel on seven continents, leading Intrepid trips through SE Asia, work in outdoor education, energy conservation, international development, philanthropy and climate change action, plus a big love of walking, mountains and world music.

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