Spotlight Germany: Which crocodile is hidden in a ladies shoe?

To find an answer to this interesting question I had an appointment today at the zoological museum of Hamburg university.

It is a sad fact that shoes, belts and purses from snakeskin, crocodile and other reptiles are still popular as products and people like to take them home as souvenirs of their vacations. However, if the item is made from the hide of a protected animal it can easily lead to problems with customs on returning home.

The importation of such products is mostly illegal and only permitted in exceptional cases with the proper documentation.

It is often difficult, or even impossible, for purchasers to tell whether or not a crocodile handbag or a pair of snakeskin shoes actually originates from a protected animal. And any information received from traders is most unreliable, because their interest in making a sale is of paramount importance to them.

That is why we appeal to holidaymakers to avoid buying any products that may be made from endangered species of animals.

In fact, customs officers face a similar problem when they inspect the luggage of leaving or returning travelers at airports and border controls. They have to be able to detect whether the product is made of materials that originate from protected animals.

This is made more difficult by the fact that leather, skin, fur and feathers are rearranged and processed. For example, a shoe or a handbag is stitched together from many individual pieces of leather and so may appear most unlike the skin of the living animal. In such cases the identification books available are of little help when it comes to precisely determining the species. It calls for special skills and a lot of experience.

Customs officers are trained at the zoological museum of Hamburg university to identify species of crocodile and snake from tiny, but characteristic features. It is all about answering questions such as: Is that scaly pattern only embossed or is it real? To which part of the actual animal’s body does this scrap of leather match? Can we deduce any identifying features from this?

Much knowledge, dedication and attention is demanded of customs officers in performing their job. We consumers have it much easier: In cases of doubt simply refuse to buy.

-- RK

Translation: Alan Frostick

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