Wildlife Watch

Snake Wine and Other Wild Souvenirs to Avoid

You might not know that these items are illegal or inhumane.

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Snake wine, on display in Hanoi, Vietnam, is sometimes made by drowning a live snake in rice wine.


Taking a vacation this summer? As a traveler, you have the power to contribute to conservation. Maybe you’re considering staying in a low-energy ecolodge or buying carbon offsets for your flight. Sustainable travel gets easier every year.

Even travel companies are getting on board, making new pledges to stop wildlife trafficking. JetBlue will soon start showing a video onboard to passengers to educate them about the illegal wildlife trade, and cruise lines Royal Caribbean Cruises and Carnival have both pledged to educate their staff and passengers to eliminate the purchase of illegal wildlife products.

Many of us already know that it’s illegal to bring home elephant ivory, rhino horn, and tiger products. But there are numerous other souvenirs that you might not realize are putting wildlife at risk.

A good place to start is to ask these questions:

  • What is this product made of?
  • Where is it from?
  • Do I need a permit to bring it home?

And when you come across the following items, a red flag should go up.

Sea turtle products: Did you know that six of the seven sea turtle species are endangered? It’s best to avoid sea turtle souvenirs altogether. That goes for jewelry, hair clips, musical instruments, sea turtle soup and eggs, sea turtle leather products, and anything labeled “tortoiseshell.”

Snake wine: In Southeast Asia it’s not uncommon to find bottles of wine stuffed with whole snakes for sale. Some believe it has medicinal value (not true), and others like the oddity factor. But the truth is, it’s cruel and inhumane. Snake wine is often made by drowning a live snake in alcohol. It’s also potentially dangerous—every once in a while, the snake doesn’t die. It awakens from a drunken sleep to bite the person drinking the wine. Or it passes on deadly parasites.

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Coral and coral jewelry are popular souvenirs, but many countries restrict which species can be exported.


Bird feathers: It’s tempting to bring home a brightly colored feather. After all, it’s lightweight and easy to carry. But be careful: The U.S. forbids bringing home feathers from most wild birds. The same is true for live birds, mounted birds, and birds’ nests.

Coral and seashells: If you’re visiting coastal communities, there’s a good chance you’ll find people hawking dried coral and seashells in markets or by the side of the road. They’re easy to buy but not always easy to get home. Just like gems, certain corals are “precious”—they’re so exploited that they’re listed as endangered species. That’s why lots of countries limit what can be exported. Don’t get caught unaware at the airport. If you’re set on coral jewelry or bringing home that shell you found on the beach, research your host country’s laws first, and make sure you can ascertain with 100 percent certainty that what you’ve bought or found is what you think it is.

Walrus ivory: Walrus ivory, unlike the souvenirs listed above, is more of a yellow flag than a red flag. Buying walrus tusk carvings or engravings (also known as scrimshaw) is legal—but only if the art was done by Alaska natives. The Federal Trade Commission suggests asking for written proof of authenticity if you’re not sure.

For more information on how to tell whether it’s authentic, check out the FTC’s guide for buying Alaska native art. And for more information on what’s legal and what’s not, see the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s guide to walrus ivory do’s and don’ts.

Want more information? Read more from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s tips for travelers and the World Wildlife Fund’s buyer beware guide.

This story was produced by National Geographic’s Special Investigations Unit, which focuses on wildlife crime and is made possible by grants from the BAND Foundation and the Woodtiger Fund. Read more stories from the SIU on Wildlife Watch. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to ngwildlife@ngs.org.

Follow Rachael Bale on Twitter.

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