Smugglers beware

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In 1987 I was enjoying a holiday in Morocco taking in the sights on a coach tour along the coast stopping at ports along the way. The sky was a dazzling blue when we approached the quayside and parked. As usual we had to politely brush aside exuberant locals wanting to coil tame snakes around our necks.

What caught my eye was both beautiful and shocking. A huge pile of shiny, brightly-coloured seashells had been trawled up from the coral reef. The shells were waiting to be stripped of their occupants, cleaned and then sold to tourists.

Many years ago seafarers and travellers brought home all kinds of live animals as pets along with their skins and other souvenirs of journeys to distant lands. This has been outlawed or at least strictly controlled to protect the world’s diminishing wildlife – anyone trying to smuggle them home faces tough penalties. Customs officers enforce the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) regulations. These have been controlling the trade in wild animals and plants since 1975. More than 30,000 species are involved although most are plants such as rare orchids and cacti.

Tourists often don’t realise that their holiday souvenirs, such as jewellery and clothing, could be made from endangered species. A specialist team at Heathrow Airport track the shipment of live animals and find suitable homes for those illegally imported.Exhibits in the Seized gallery at Merseyside Maritime Museum include a pair of mounted Lear’s Macaws (pictured). A Yorkshire parrot trader was jailed for two-and-a-half years for smuggling these critically-endangered birds.

Illegal spermaceti candles were made from sperm whale oil – spermaceti was also once used for cosmetics. Seven out of 13 great whale species are still endangered and vulnerable despite decades of protection.A lamp made from pieces of coral and shells was a tourist souvenir. The removal of shells and stony coral from their natural habitats threatens the entire eco-system.

Nearly 3,000 coral species – including the purple fan coral on display – are listed as endangered. The mounted hawksbill turtle illustrates a critically-endangered species whose shells are considered highly attractive in some parts of the tourist trade. A queen conch shell features a painted beach scene with the words Belize 1981. The importing of conch shells is currently suspended while its rarity is examined after huge numbers were exported as souvenirs.

Another display features pelts and skins from endangered species such as tigers and other big cats seized by Customs.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents, bookshops or from the Mersey Shop website (£1.50 p&p UK).