Travelers get wildlife purchase warning

Agency advises against buying products made from endangered species

February 28, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

That tortoise shell bracelet may be appealing, and those ivory bookends might seem like a great buy, but federal authorities are warning that such items are subject to confiscation at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. They come from endangered animals.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials have set up a new exhibit at the airport that warns travelers against buying animal products as souvenirs. Wildlife Service Director Jamie Rappaport Clark said she wants to stop vacationers from wasting their money and fueling the illegal wildlife market.

"So much of what we see is people who are not knowledgeable about the laws," Clark said. "It's through displays like these we get the message out about the problem. We hope the travelers will read [the display] before boarding their planes and pick up the `Buyer Beware!' brochure and take it with them."

More than 15.3 million people traveled through BWI last year, airport officials said. About 756,000 of them flew internationally where illegal items are most often sold.

Tiger and elephant parts often come from Asian and African countries, sea turtle parts from Mexico, reptile skins, endangered sea shells, and wild bird feathers from South America and coral from the Caribbean, wildlife inspector Catherine Cockey said. Items made from endangered species -- whether a $2 bottle of lotion made with oils from sea turtles or a $10,000 jacket made from the skin of an ocelot, an small, endangered African cat -- will be confiscated and the travelers could be handed a fine from $100 to $1,000.

"No matter what the product is or how small, if it's made from an endangered species, it's illegal to bring back to the U.S.," Cockey said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service's $9,000 display, unveiled Friday, is behind the airport information counter at Pier D, just yards away from the corridor that links international travelers with their flights. The airport donated the space for one year, but wildlife officials said they hope to find a permanent location in the airport.

The three-panel presentation highlights the law enforcement branch of the Wildlife Service, the 512 wildlife refuges the service manages nationwide, and Patuxent Wildlife Refuge, which is 15 miles south of the airport in Laurel. Maryland has four other refuges along the eastern shore.

The display includes pelts and products made with animal parts that wildlife inspectors have confiscated in Baltimore or at Dulles International Airport.

Among the spoils are items obviously made from animals -- a full-sized African ivory tusk carving, a stuffed hawksbill sea turtle with its shell and nose polished to a shine, and a purse made from the skin of an African dwarf crocodile: The head with teeth included is part of the front flap; its legs and feet form the back.

But consumers might be less sure of small ivory trinkets because plastic replicas are so common, or of shoes and belts made with crocodile skin because alligator skin items are legal. Cockey said people can look for small brown crosshatchings that run through ivory to tell if its real. Crocodile skins have pin-tip-sized dimples that run along their hides, while alligators do not.

With some items, like an elephant hair bracelet or sea-turtle skin purse, most consumers could scrutinize the product and still not know that it was made from an endangered animal.

Low prices in foreign marketplaces is one reason why even picky consumers are fooled. The dwarf crocodile purse was only $13, and a blue lizard-foot key chain cost less than $10, but the animals the products came from are invaluable.

"It's very hard to measure the true impact," Cockey said. "You can buy a [turtle skin] purse for $15, but if you don't have any more turtles, how do you calculate? The true cost to wildlife is immeasurable."

Many of the animals used for non-essential products are important players in the ecosystem they thrive in. For example, freshwater mussel shells are used to make cultured pearls, but the animals filter contaminants that are harmful to rivers and streams.

That's why it's important to teach travelers to be smart consumers when they visit other countries, Clark said.

"By avoiding the [illegal] products, they're helping other countries and our own protect the ecosystems," she said. "What happens to wildlife happens to us."

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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