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At Home: Endangered decor

March 26, 2014 

If you want to help protect the planet and preserve endangered species, say no to decorating with coral (above), ivory, tortoise shell and feathers.


Several months ago I wrote a column about feathers that got readers squawking. I wrote about how they were trending up in fashion and decor. Bird lovers cried, “Foul!”

And rightly so.

Feathers are beautiful. When they are rendered as a motif in, say, wallpaper, fabric or tableware, they can be exquisite. But when actual feathers from endangered flocks are used in home decor, that is a bird of a different color. I found out. That use, my fine-feathered friends, can be at the peril of threatened birds.

Don’t do it.

My consciousness was raised even more when I had an eye-opening discussion with Craig Hoover, chief of wildlife trade and conservation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Hoover told me about the impact certain home decor choices have on our planet and its wildlife.

Hoover’s mission: to prevent consumers from unwittingly buying home furnishings that harm the wild. “Most people aren’t thinking about where an item comes from and what impact their purchasing decision has on animal and plant life around the world when they buy home furnishings,” Hoover said. “I want to get them to make the connection between the beautiful product in the store and the impact that removing it from the wild has on plants or animals.

“Anything that creates a demand for products made from endangered species is bad news for that species.”

Hoover shared some products used in home decor that he wants you to think about before you buy:

Ivory: Often beautifully carved into ornate balls or figures, ivory comes at a steep price to wildlife, usually elephants, which are killed solely for their tusks. Some ivory also comes from walrus tusks and hippopotamus teeth, Hoover said. Unfortunately, demand for ivory has risen sharply. Last year, 35,000 African elephants were killed for their tusks, and more than 60 percent of the planet’s forest elephants over the last decade. As a result, Asian elephants are endangered, and African elephants are threatened, he said.

Coral: In home decor, showy pieces of coral are often on display, but hundreds of thousands of species of fish rely on coral reefs for food and shelter. Because of the market for coral, the planet’s reefs are shrinking. “Coral grows very slowly,” Hoover said. “A 12-inch piece of branch coral, one of the fastest-growing types, grows only an inch a year, so it would take 12 years to replace itself.”

Tortoise shell: Sea turtles are endangered because their shells are so highly regarded. Fake tortoise shell is common in eyewear, hair accessories and handles on flatware because the mottled brown tones look so fabulous. But those opting for items fashioned from real tortoise are contributing to the demise of these reptiles.

Rhino horn: Poachers are killing two rhinos a day on average in South Africa alone just for the animal’s horn. The texture of toenails, rhino horn is mostly sold for unproven medicinal purposes, but some people fashion the horns into drinking or “libation” cups, which sell for high prices.

Orchids: I never would have thought that buying these graceful flowering plants could threaten our already at-risk rain forests. However, that’s where many orchids come from, said Hoover, who encourages those who want to adorn their homes with these tropical flowers to ask where the plants came from before buying. If they were grown in a nursery, buy them with a clear conscience. “Those mass-produced are conservation neutral,” he said. But those imported from overseas? Likely not.

Mahogany: Supplies of mahogany and Brazilian rosewood are shrinking and are highly regulated, said Hoover, who wants consumers to know the status of the wood in the furnishings before they purchase. Stick with woods like oak and pine that are plantation grown and sustainably produced.

Feathers: Decades ago, the fad of women’s hats adorned with exotic feathers created a run on rare birds, driving many toward extinction. Strict laws arose to protect more than 1,000 species, said Hoover, who, once again, wants consumers to ask informed questions before making a feather purchase. Ask what kind of feathers are on the object and where they came from. If from wild birds, they’re likely illegal. If they came from birds in captive breeding, they are conservation neutral.

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