Obviously that carved rhino horn for sale at a foreign marketplace should not come home with you. Nor should the leopard skin, the narwhal tusk and the whale meat. But what about the queen conch from your Caribbean holiday or the caviar from the London airport duty-free shop? Not so obvious, is it?

Travelers — and that special subgroup of shoppers who travel — need know which wildlife items are permitted into the States and which ones are banned. The exotic animal test is unreliable. Many less toothy animals, birds, reptiles, plants, fish and shells are legally protected. Choose your souvenirs unwisely and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could confiscate your purchases upon your return.

The issue has implications beyond simply wasting money. Wildlife trafficking threatens the sustainability and survival of hundreds of species worldwide. Many nefarious individuals and groups, such as poachers, corrupt government officials and organized crime syndicates, benefit from these illegal sales. Buying that $4 tortoise ring doesn’t seem so innocent anymore.

“There is no way the general consumer has any way of knowing how it was obtained,” said Ann-Marie Holmes, a senior wildlife inspector with the agency.

An array of state, federal and international laws regulates the wildlife trade. One of the most prominent accords is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which counts nearly every country as a member. Species listed under CITES Appendix I are the most at-risk, and the treaty has placed a near-total ban on commercial goods exploiting these animals. Members of this club include sea turtles, cheetahs, tigers and black rhinos.

There is more wiggle room with species categorized under Appendix II and Appendix III, as long as the traveler obtains the proper permit or certificate. For instance, under the personal baggage exemption rule, you can carry a “reasonable” amount of an item. But some species are not eligible for this exemption and not all countries recognize it.

Wildlife protection experts advise travelers to familiarize themselves with the laws before upcoming trips. Start with the service’s “Traveling to the Caribbean” and “Tips for Travelers,” and the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s “Stopping the Illegal Wildlife Trade.” Sample advise: Under the heading “Please Don’t Buy,” IFAW urges people to avoid handbags, shoes, watch straps and belts made of reptile skins. For any lingering questions, contact the Fish and Wildlife Service office at your return port.

Of course, much of the thrill of shopping involves spontaneous discoveries. Before you departed for Australia, you probably didn’t know how great the Crocodile Dundee hat would look on your head. Reputable retailers should know the legal status and origin of the wildlife items they are selling and provide you with a document to present at customs. Unfortunately, employees might not always be well-versed in the laws governing their clothing, crafts or jewelry. But that won’t stop them from attaching a price tag to the object.

“Just because it’s for sale,” Holmes said, “doesn’t mean it’s legal.”

To avoid the risk, the agent offers a simple solution: “Don’t buy wildlife. Buy a magnet, buy a T-shirt.”

To learn from other travelers’ mistakes, here are some examples of banned items that are now the property of the Fish and Wildlife Service.


Crocodile Dundee leather hat with saltwater crocodile hide and teeth. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
Crocodile Dundee leather hat with saltwater crocodile hide and teeth

Where you can buy it: Australia

Why it is regulated: All crocodile species fall under CITES I or II; some species are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Threats include illegal hunting, international trade in skins and habitat loss.

When it is permitted: Personal baggage exemption


Hermès Birkin bag made of American alligator hide. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
Hermès Birkin bag made of American alligator hide

Where you can buy it: Paris, Milan, London and other cities with a luxury retail market

Why it is regulated: CITES II. Threats include hunting, illegal trade, habitat loss and pollution.

When it is permitted: Personal baggage exemption


Queen conch shell. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
Queen conch shell

Where you can buy it: Caribbean, Latin America

Why it is regulated: CITES II. Threatened from overfishing for conch meat and bait and the sale of shells in the tourist trade

When it is permitted: Personal baggage exemption for up to three shells


Hair accessory from a hawksbill shell (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

Taxidermic hawksbill (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
Hair accessory carved from hawksbill shell and taxidermic hawksbill

Where you can buy it: Mexico, Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, Africa

Why it is regulated: All sea turtle species are listed under CITES I and are considered threatened or endangered under the ESA. Threats include illegal trade in meat, eggs and skins, habitat loss, pollution, and tourists and lights disturbing nesting habitats.

When it is permitted: Items certified as “pre-convention” (predates the CITES listing) may be eligible for CITES permits. Items certified as “pre-act” (before ESA listing) or antique items (older than 100 years) may be exempt.


Shahtoosh shawl made of Tibetan antelope hair. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
Shahtoosh/ring shawl made of Tibetan antelope hair

Where you can buy it: India, Switzerland and high-end stores in fashion capitals. If you can pull the fine wool scarf through a ring, it is likely a shahtoosh, not a pashmina.

Why it is regulated: CITES I; endangered under the ESA. Threats include poaching for the animals’ shorter guard-hairs.

When it is permitted: Same requirements as sea turtles


Caviar derived from sturgeon or paddlefish. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
Caviar from sturgeon or paddlefish

Where you can buy it: Airport duty-free shops, global gourmet food markets

Why it is regulated: All sturgeon and paddlefish species are categorized as CITES I or II, and some species are listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA. Threats include overfishing for meat and roe for the caviar trade, habitat loss and pollution. The illegal caviar trade is often associated with transnational organized crime.

When it is permitted: Personal baggage exemption for up to 125 grams (small tin), unless derived from species banned under the ESA


Drum head made of monitor lizard skin and decorated with cowrie shells. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
Drum head made of monitor lizard skin and decorated with cowrie shells

Where you can buy it: Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, sub-Saharan Africa

Why it is regulated: All monitor lizard species fall under CITES II. Threats include the live pet trade, harvesting for meat and skins, and habitat loss.

When it is permitted: Personal baggage exemption


Red coral necklace. (Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)
Red coral necklace

Where you can buy it: Caribbean, Central and South America, Europe, Pacific islands, Asia

Why it is regulated: CITES III. Threats include overharvesting for the aquarium and jewelry trade, illegal collection or destruction by recreational divers, habitat degradation, rising ocean temperatures and pollution.

When it is permitted: Personal baggage exemption