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Talking Business: Retailers using exotic species beware

Steve ’taxidermist to the stars’ Wilson made headlines in 2011 when charged with, amongst other breaches, illegally owning a stuffed tiger, which he supplied to fashion designer Alexander McQueen, write lawyers Ross Dixon and Jon Goulding.

While all charges against Wilson were dropped in 2013, a long, costly and reputation-damaging court battle had to be endured. Such stories might seem extraneous to most retailers, but many importing materials made from exotic animal skins, such as crocodile leather, are at risk.

And the stakes are high: we recently acted for a major luxury goods and high-fashion manufacturer and retailer investigated for selling products derived from endangered species. The authorities mistakenly concluded that criminal offences were being committed, causing much distress; premises were raided, an employee arrested, paperwork taken away and thousands of pounds worth of goods seized. In our experience, those tasked with policing these regulations are very keen on securing a conviction.

The legislation that can so easily ensnare producers, importers and retailers of goods made from exotic species is The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The 2,500 animal and 25,000 plant species contained in CITES are divided into four annexes, each with its own distinct rules, controls and prohibitions relating to commercial activity regarding the species contained within. The most endangered species are to be found in Annex A.

At first glance this may seem straightforward enough, but the devil is in the detail. Certain factory-farmed crocodiles and alligators, for example, may be contained in different annexes, depending on their species. An inability to trace a specific item such as crocodile shoes back to the specific hide from which they were manufactured, including where they were made, detail of the species of crocodile, the original geographical location of the specimen and whether it was farmed or taken from the wild could result in contravention of the regulations.

It can prove very difficult for a commercial enterprise to comply, no matter how much it might want to. CITES is not only more complex than it appears, but also out of step with the reality of doing business, particularly at the retail stage.

Failure to comply, however, can result in a maximum penalty of a five year prison sentence and an unlimited fine. With the regulations being so complex and open to interpretation, robust systems and attention to detail are necessary to avoid situations where the legality of goods is in any way questionable.

The fashion for exotic species being used to make handbags, shoes, belts and other items available on the premium end of the high streets as well as designer brands means that risk is not just confined to high-end names like Alexander McQueen. Well-toted handbag names on the high street need to also be aware of the implications of CITES, and the precautions that should be in place to protect them.

Ross Dixon and Jon Goulding are lawyers at Hickman & Rose and Gough Square Chambers respectively.

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