Wild animals offered as souvenirs – touring the markets of Southeast Asia

Ivory carvings on a market in Tachilek, MyanmarIt was a long journey by car from the airport in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to the northern border of the country.

I have arrived at the small border town of Mae Sai. The border crossing to Myanmar (Burma) is now within sight.

With only a few thousand inhabitants, Mae Sai may be small, but its markets are comparatively large. Here, and on the other side of the border, in the small town Tachileik, the street markets and market halls stretch for several kilometers.

The region has become an increasingly popular tourist destination since the border to Myanmar opened for tourism and it is now simple to enter on a day visa.

I spot a lot of tourists from China, but holidaymakers from Western Europe are also evident. The markets have adjusted to this. In addition to general commodities, from household utensils and apparel to groceries, you can also find typical travel souvenirs.

The variety of goods on offer is beyond description. Sadly, I also see many live animals of the most varied kinds: birds, toads, snakes, fresh water turtles, fish. The majority are intended for cooking or for use in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

Species protection is scarcely a consideration here.

I am concentrating on the selection of typical tourist souvenirs. I find lovely hand-carved puppets and marionettes, artfully finished fabrics and textiles, jewelry from wire and metal.

And then I suddenly encounter a number of stands offering ivory carvings of all kinds: bracelets, necklaces, pendants, rings, figurines.

I have no doubt that the ivory is real.

The banding is easily seen on polished surfaces. When I ask I am informed that the ivory stems from Thai elephants, but no information for a tourist is forthcoming that such products should not be exported and certainly not to Europe.

My search continues: In an exclusive liquor shop a bottle of tiger wine is on offer, and according to the saleswoman it was imported from China a few years ago.

The price equates to several hundred euros.

As a rule tiger wine consists of whisky infused for a while with the bones of a tiger. It is believed this endows the drink with a healing effect. For this the bones of a wild tiger, thus one illegally shot, are considered all the more effective.

That is why tiger wine is a popular product in TCM, but also increasingly as a tourist souvenir or as a present with value as a status symbol.

Again the same attitude: the highly protected status of tigers is completely ignored.

It reminds me of a journey to South Africa a few years ago.

There I also combed through markets and shopping malls for travel souvenirs, and there I also discovered a lot of protected mollusks and corals, reptile products, furs and trophies of big cats and time and again ivory.

I was even shown sawn-off elephant feet converted for use as bar stools. And time and again the same story: the inquiries of potential buyers are met with misleading or false information, such as;

“The ivory comes from elephants that died of natural causes.” or

“A large part of the profits goes towards nature protection projects.”

And of course everything is “totally legal” …

The outcome of this is reflected in the latest statistics, recently published by the customs office at Frankfurt am Main airport.

According to this there were 553 cases of confiscation on grounds of species protection in 2011. From these there were 4,675 living animals and 15,077 products made from protected animals and plants. The majority of such products were found in the suitcases of returning travelers.

It therefore pays to inform yourself before traveling about the holiday souvenirs you should best avoid – both in your own interests as well as biodiversity and animal protection.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare has recently published an updated leaflet that offers a good overview of banned holiday souvenirs.

You can also find further information about this topic on the IFAW website.


Translation: Alan Frostick

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