Gateway to the Endangered World

06 February 2013

The South Australian Museum's Galleries offer visitors the unique experience of being transported to other worlds through different cultures, languages, artefacts and natural resources.

A rather unusual and steadily growing collection is bringing people face to face with parts of endangered animals which have been brought into the country illegally. Australian Customs approached the Museum several years ago to ask whether we would display some of the weird and wonderful souvenirs confiscated at airports. The intention was to educate people about the impact of the tourist trade on these endangered species and deter people from bringing in similar items.

From ivory artwork to elephant tails, bejewelled animal skulls to rhinoceros horns, dangerous spiders to aphrodisiac pills, and the tail of a rattlesnake to a tiger's claws — the Customs display in our Information Centre is full of amazing stories. It not only fascinates and educates visitors about foreign cultures, but it also brings home the message of conservation of endangered animals.

Staff at our Information Centre love to tell stories about plants and wildlife. Manager Mike Gemmell often explains to curious spectators why we keep this display of illegal imports.

"People buy these things as souvenirs — as food and as gifts — and they end up getting confiscated by Customs and Quarantine. If we can stop people bringing bugs and pathogens that don't exist in Australia, we can keep those problems from getting into the country. If the market for animal souvenirs in these countries stops; poachers will stop killing endangered species."

The orangutans of countries like Borneo have become the 'faces' of deforestation: their habitats are drastically reduced every day for the sake of palm oil supplies. Holding up a young female orangutan skull, Mr Gemmell explains the sad impact of people buying these souvenirs.

"She would have been shot so that they could catch her baby and sell it at a market. Having lived in a market, the baby probably would never have the opportunity to breed. Its mother will never have the opportunity to breed, so that's the end of that line.

"In another 50 years, you probably won't be able to go and see one of these animals in the wild."

The Museum's illegal imports collection shows three monkey skulls from Indonesia and two from Tibet, which Mr Gemmell says have been used as tribal jewellery or decoration.

"Kids can see these objects here and if you can get through to them, you can get through to their parents. Children see so much on television and are often more aware of conservation and endangered species than their parents. They can help discourage people from buying these souvenirs and therefore, the poachers from hunting them."

Large numbers of elephants are sacrificed for their ivory or skin in African and Asian countries. The South Australian Museum's display includes an elephant's tail which was sold at a market in London, and many ivory tusks carved into artworks. Mr Gemmell says poachers are paid very little for ivory but it ends up being sold for large amounts of money.

"Whatever the end result sale-wise might be, the life of the elephant has become about five dollars," he says.

"It's the same for this rhinoceros," he says, holding up an extremely valuable horn. "In places like Kenya, rangers use tranquilisers to subdue the animal then cut off the horn to make the animal worthless. This rhino would have been too young to breed, so that's the end of that line too."

The market for horns exists because people believe the material has aphrodisiac qualities. Mr Gemmell says in Asia, the horn is ground to a powder and made into tablets or drinks and sold for exorbitant prices.

"The amusing thing is that it's a myth. Traditionally, these people believe if they eat part of a dangerous and powerful animal, they will take on the characteristics of that animal. It doesn't work because the horn is only compressed hair. They could cut their own hair, grind it up and it would have the same effect – which is nothing!"

In the Customs display, a piranha from the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil grins with sharp teeth on a varnished platform. "Someone has actually cut the lips off the piranha because if they can't see the teeth on this, nobody would have bought it," says Mr Gemmell.

The display also includes tiger claws, teeth, spiders, beetles and food items.

The South Australian Museum aims to promote education and awareness of illegal imports in the hope travellers will stop contributing to the likely extinction of threatened species.

"Some of these animals would have survived otherwise – it's important we educate people of all ages. We may not be able to stop destructive activities in these countries but we can stop support for them."


The Information Centre is generously supported by the Thyne Reid Foundation.