EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Stacey Ortega will take the sea turtle boots off your feet at the border, but she won’t make you go back barefoot.
“Whenever I have seized them, people usually have them on,” said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife inspector assigned to the Paso del Norte port of entry in El Paso. “If I were to seize your sea turtle boots, I would give you some slippers … We don’t want you to get hurt going back to your car or wherever you are going.”
Sea turtle, elephant and pangolin boots are among the endangered animal products federal officials routinely seize at the U.S.-Mexico border. Others include python and arapaima shoe wear, zebra and ocelot pelts, crocodile skins and eagle feathers and talons.
Offenders face fines of up to $500 for trying to bring such merchandise into the United States – more if they try to conceal it. But most returning Americans or visiting foreigners claim they didn’t know the products they bought in Mexico were illegal.
That’s why U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday hosted a public outreach event at the Paso del Norte border crossing.
Officials from CBP and other agencies set up tables with displays about items you shouldn’t bring across as well as information to expedite your return. That includes enrolling in programs like SENTRI and Global Entry. Those allow the federal government to do a background check on you and in return give you faster check-in at ports of entry.
“CBP used to hold events like this routinely, but the COVID pandemic restricted our ability to deliver this information,” said CBP El Paso Port Director Ray Provencio. “The information we share is available online, but this gives those who are more comfortable speaking to a person the opportunity to do so.”
At the consumer level, such knowledge not only saves you from a fine but empowers you to fight international poaching.
“This is pangolin, this is also an endangered species,” Ortega said, holding a pair of boots made of skin from a scaly Asian anteater. Eight species of pangolin are protected under international laws and two are listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “The people will pluck the scales off and use them for medicinal purposes, and then the skin will be used for boots, belts, things like that. This is the most trafficked wildlife in the world.”
Mexico has strict laws when it comes to protection of endangered turtles. Penalties for killing and commercializing eight species of turtle are up to nine years in prison. That doesn’t stop criminals from killing the animals or online merchants from openly advertising sea turtle boots for sale for as low as $140 a pair.
Ortega said some travelers told her they thought the boots were imitation endangered species because of the low price they paid for them in Mexico. But they were real. “Just because you buy it in Mexico and it’s cheap, doesn’t mean it’s imitation. That’s a common misconception,” she said.
For more information on prohibited animal products at the U.S. border, visit this CBP web page.