When reading fashion magazines (a guilty pleasure of mine), I do so knowingly I will experience a baseline level of offense. Fur and snakeskin as acceptable garments, feelings of poverty when I’m told $500 for a dress is a steal, and the omnipresent advice to lose weight are givens. But this past week, something really stopped me in my tracks. Not only was it of poor taste, but it was borderline criminal.
In the “Trophy Trips of 2016” special issue of Town & Country, I was shocked to see a one-page spread, “Entrance Exam” by Sarah Bray. This article gives helpful advice to the ultra-rich as to which endangered species fashion items should be left home for no-fuss travel. The tone is basically that these CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna) laws are a drag, and that bringing wildlife products or their look-alikes can result in confiscation of your prized positions. The caption reads “Even if you’ve breezed through customs with your croc bag before, there are technically, rules about that.”
Technically there are rules because technically some species face the very real threat of extinction due to human overconsumption. It is especially sad when that reason is fashion. Although fashion is super fun, no species should have to go extinct because someone wants a bag. These rules were not made to be arbitrary and throw hoops for travelers to jump through. These rules are in place because wildlife trafficking is a big deal. It is a crime. Wildlife trafficking is third in illegal trade after guns and drugs. It is estimated to be worth at least 7-10 billion USD annually and the second largest direct threat to wildlife. While Town & Country technically mentions that there are rules and tells people to abide by them, Bray’s annoyed undertones (ugh, the rules make it so hard to bring my leopard coat!) and use of the word technically suggest endangered species trafficking laws are nothing more than an annoyance.
Asking people to leave items at home for their own convenience tucks the issue of wildlife crime under the illegal tiger rug. Even if you do leave your endangered products at home, what kind of message does this send? That it’s okay to have endangered wildlife products? I understand that some of these are vintage and inherited and therefore legal, but considering wildlife crime is a billion dollar industry, many are not. The message of this article is not “don’t buy these endangered wildlife products” or even “alternative products for endangered fashion,” but to leave your endangered fashion at home. Bray makes the focus on you and your losses, “Imagine your cherished seashell earrings and coral necklace confiscated. Wear turquoise instead,” and not about the true losses that wildlife have to suffer. For example, to make that snakeskin garment, snakes are taken from the wild before they are reproductive, making it unsustainable, and inflated with air to kill them.
Instead of advising travelers on how to best protect their endangered assets, I encourage Town & Country to run a feature on how tourists can protect species by not purchasing them at all. This way, wildlife and tourists both win. For instance, one study found all twelve species of protected marine mollusks for sale in large markets in Indonesia, some for less than one US dollar. In another study 82% of curios sold coral. People who travel to these exotic areas do so for their gorgeous beaches and ocean recreation like snorkeling and diving. Taking these seashell and coral trinkets home directly threatens the ecosystem they came to enjoy. For example, between 5,000-7,000 shells of the horned helmet were sold just in one month.
While it may be hard for people to care about snakes and snails (although you should for reasons listed here), most everyone loves sea turtles! Most sad to me, is the mention of tortoise shell, which is not from tortoises, but the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle. Over the last 100 years, literally millions of hawksbill sea turtles have been killed for tourist items, especially sunglasses as the article mentions. Even though hawksbills face great threats like fisheries bycatch, beach habitat destruction, and pollution, wildlife trade is still a great threat. Despite international and domestic prohibitions (i.e. CITES), trade is “ongoing and pervasive” in the Americas and in southeast Asia. These animals are not only super cute, but incredible – after long migrations in the ocean, they return to the same nesting grounds where they were born. And all of this may be gone – just to be designer sunglasses. Critically endangered is the last step before extinction.
While I appreciate Bray pointing out CITES rules, she missed a much needed opportunity to point out the magnitude and severity of illegal wildlife trade, while belittling the laws protecting the animals that will benefit from it. Just because you are rich, does not mean you are apathetic to wildlife and conservation (just ask Leonardo DiCaprio). Thank you for your time and I look forward to your response.
Dr. Stephanie Schuttler
AKA Fancy Scientist