Complex rules can snare travelers with walrus ivory, baleen

A walrus on the ice in the Bering Sea off Alaska. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A walrus on the ice in the Bering Sea off Alaska. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service CITES certificate. Don’t leave home without it. Not if you’re traveling overseas with art or jewelry made from walrus ivory and want to bring it back to America.

Diane Kaplan of Anchorage found that out last month when she and her husband returned from a trip to Turkey via O’Hare Airport in Chicago.

“We were going through customs,” she said. “They asked, ‘What’s your necklace made out of?’ I said, ‘Ivory.’ And they said, ‘I’m going to have to get the Fish and Wildlife agent.’”

Kaplan’s necklace was walrus ivory. It is legal to possess in the United States under provisions of the Marine Mammals Protection Act but it became the ticket to a bureaucratic Twilight Zone once it left the country.

A uniformed Fish and Wildlife officer quizzed Kaplan about the necklace. She explained that it was made by a Native Alaskan, that it was walrus, not elephant ivory, that it was obviously an old piece, not obtained on her recent trip.

The agent kept asking questions, and Kaplan told her she was also wearing a bracelet, made by James Tocktoo, consisting of ivory and baleen.

“Oh, that’s really bad,” the agent said. “Anything from a whale is really bad. I’m going to probably have to confiscate your jewelry.”

Kaplan – the president of the Rasmuson Foundation, wife of an Alaska Native and contributor to many political causes – started making phone calls. She called Sen. Mark Begich’s office, the Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage and officers of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. They advised: Don’t hand over your jewelry. Don’t sign anything. Insist on speaking to the agent’s supervisor.

During the long back-and-forth the agent said, “I don’t want to get the police involved.”

The standoff ended when enforcement agents at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport in Anchorage phoned in and spoke to the Chicago agent.

“Her whole demeanor changed,” Kaplan recalled. “She said, ‘I’m going to let you go. But I want you to know that I have every right to confiscate your jewelry.’”

Alaskans accustomed to the statewide trade in Native-made ivory and whale items may be thinking at this point that the Chicago agent was ignorant of the law. In fact, the rules were on her side.

A guide prepared by the USFWS specifies that transporting walrus ivory out of the country requires a special CITES (pronounced “SITE-eez”), or Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, permit in almost all cases. USFWS spokesman Bruce Woods said it’s required for taking a pair of walrus earrings out of the country and back.

There are exceptions for Hong Kong and Canada, which recognize a “personal baggage exemption” for such items carried in luggage, Woods said. But other countries do not have such an exemption.

If departing through Anchorage, the ivory-transporting traveler must pay a $186 inspection fee. The fee rises to $238 for travelers taking direct flights out of state from Fairbanks or Southeast because the staff to provide such inspections is in Anchorage, Woods said.

The traveler must also pay for the permit itself, which is $75 if the earrings were made before 1972, the date when the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed, $100 if they are “post-Act.” The certificate can only be issued by the USFWS office in Arlington, Va., and can take up to 90 days to process.

No paperwork is needed to transport legal-in-America items made from walrus or whale parts between Alaska and the Lower 48. However states have their own special regulations.

California, for instance, prohibits importation or possession “with intent to sell, or to sell within the state, the dead body, or any part or product thereof” of whales, seals, dolphins, sea otters, wolves or polar bears.

“Anyone bringing in these items would not be able to sell them,” said Liz Schwall, a retired captain with the California Department of Fish and Game. “They could be given away or possibly sold in another state.”

So if you purchased a whalebone sculpture by Amos Lang or Christopher Aningayou, transported it to your retirement home in Palm Springs, then decided to sell it, you would first need to remove it from California’s jurisdiction, taking it to Arizona, for instance.

The USFWS specifies that “Authentic Native Handcrafts,” that is those legally accepted as art made from parts of marine mammals, must be “significantly altered from their natural form.” A tusk with light scrimshaw, a drawing on the back of a sea otter hide or a polar bear skull simply mounted on a plaque is not considered sufficiently altered to be sold to non-Natives.

The rules can seem arbitrary. For instance, a single polar bear claw on a string is not “significantly altered” but a necklace made of several such claws is. A crude criteria, according to the guide, is whether the products “can be easily converted back to their natural state.”

As for taking baleen out of the country, forget about it. Most whales have the highest protection under CITES. Baleen and whalebone “cannot be exported from the U.S., even when made into an authentic Alaska Native Handcraft,” reads the guide.

“Fine art is not exempt,” Woods added.

“(Whale) can’t leave the country,” said USFWS Wildlife Inspector Chris Andrews. “That’s a big problem, especially at the land border.”

The border with Canada, in other words.

If you fly to Juneau or Seattle or catch the ferry to Juneau then Bellingham, that whalebone crane or a baleen basket from Barrow will not be a problem. If you plan to drive the Alaska Highway, you could be obliged to part with them either by Canadian or U.S. officials.

Intercepted contraband comes to a warehouse near Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The items within include etched baleen and whale teeth that originated in Russia, unaltered hides of sea otter and polar bear, narwhal tusks, skulls, bones and skin.

Officials have confiscated these items for a range of infractions. The stuffed leopard cats and the bottle of snake wine, both from Asia, defy endangered species laws. Bags of raw walrus tusks and stacks of whale ribs run afoul of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Boxes of canned salmon harvested for personal use then offered for sale violate regulations regarding subsistence. There are bats from exotic places, mounted behind glass, prohibited by the Centers for Disease Control as a health risk.

Much of the material at the warehouse was confiscated as tourists entered the U.S. through the Anchorage airport, Andrews said, or they were discovered by carriers such as FedEx when parties tried to ship the goods out of state. A lot is held as evidence in investigations of the illegal trade of wild animals in Alaska.

Some – whale art and jewelry in particular – was simply handed over at the border when a traveler was told to relinquish the item or turn around and drive back to an airport and fly it to the Lower 48.

“They just decide it’s not worth the bother,” Andrews said.

Walrus ivory art or handicrafts, however, can be legally transported through Canada en route to the Lower 48 or back to Alaska as long as the ivory is from an Alaska walrus. You cannot obtain walrus ivory in Canada, Russia or elsewhere and bring it into the U.S. The traveler must to be able to show that the ivory is legal under U.S. law.

“In the field, our staff would accept a store receipt or similar proof the walrus ivory was from the U.S.,” Woods said.

“If you say it was bought in Alaska, we tend to take people’s word for it here,” said Andrews. “We have some discretion.”

To avoid any misunderstandings with inspectors outside Alaska, travelers are strongly advised to use a USFWS Form 3-177. This form is free and less cumbersome than the CITES permit.

The one-page form 3-177 is available several places online, including In addition to covering transport of walrus ivory jewelry across Canada, it is used for commercial shipments of reindeer parts to foreign countries, for example, as well as for people taking moose or caribou meat through Canada.

At first glance the form seems complicated but Andrews can talk you through it.

“I have this conversation almost daily,” he said.

You’ll need to fill out the date when you’re leaving Alaska. For those driving the Alaska Highway, the date can be approximate, Andrews said. Give your Alaska address and information concerning how you will be traveling. Several of the boxes pertaining to commercial shipments can be ignored.

You’ll need the scientific name of the animal with whose parts you’re traveling. For walrus, that’s “Odebenus rosmarus.”

“We have all kinds of cheat sheets we provide,” Andrews said.

Which wouldn’t have helped Kaplan on arriving at U.S. customs from overseas. If the agent hadn’t been able to exercise discretion, the jewelry would have needed the full-blown, months-long, $186 inspection CITES permit to come back to Alaska.

“I always wear my ivory jewelry because it doesn’t contain metal,” she said. “It doesn’t set off the metal detectors.

“It never occurred to me that this would be an issue.”


Information from: Anchorage (Alaska) Daily News,

Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

AP-WF-11-18-12 2201GMT


A walrus on the ice in the Bering Sea off Alaska. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A walrus on the ice in the Bering Sea off Alaska. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.