Just a short drive from the Denver airport, a 22,000-square-foot, utilitarian warehouse houses a macabre collection of rarities: tiger-skin rugs, insects in picture frames, taxidermied sea turtle, and a pair of end tables made from the unimaginable—the actual legs of an elephant. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) Repository might seem like a relic, old evidence of the way people used to pillage nature for sport or adornment. Except that new items are added to the warehouse every day. FWS officers intercept decorative objects, furniture, and floor coverings fashioned from endangered species of plants and animals at U.S. ports of entry, pick them up from shady retailers, and accept donations from sheepish people who call their tip line confessing, “I thought I was buying an antique.”

What the United Nations calls “wildlife and forest crime,” the illegal trafficking of endangered or protected flora and fauna, is much more prevalent than you’d expect. You might even have protected items in your latest project or even your own home without realizing it.

It happened to me. Ten years ago, I bought a midcentury dining set off of Craigslist for $1,200, Danish modern as they come. At the time, I was proud of having saved up and finally graduated from IKEA. But I only discovered while reporting this article that the table’s veneer is Brazilian rosewood, a material that was banned for international trade in 1992 because demand nearly decimated the source forests.

Is it illegal for me to own the table? Probably not, though I never asked the guy who sold it to me for paperwork certifying that it was created before the ’92 ban or properly permitted. Laws about the possession of trafficked home-decor items are much gentler than, say, drugs—it’s the trade and dealers they go after—but am I a part of an international, habitat-crushing system I’d never really thought about? One that continues to this day? In the words of the United Nation’s most recent World Wildlife Crime Report: “From fashion to furniture…we are all potentially complicit, and we all share a responsibility to act where we can.”

Designers have a long tradition of deep appreciation for nature’s exquisite forms, from the veins in marble to the infinite varieties of tropical leaves. William Morris wrote, “Wherever nature works, there will be beauty.” The problem now, though, is that many ecosystems aren’t working as well and can’t regenerate, gutted by human disruption and desire. International treaties, federal and state laws, and public awareness campaigns are helping protect what’s left (ivory may be the best-known example) but it’s worth asking some basic questions before buying any wildlife decor, even something that feels small, like a throw-pillow cover with fur embellishment.

“If you’re an interior designer or an architect, you need to be checking your suppliers and sourcing,” says Crawford Allan, who leads anti-trafficking efforts at the World Wildlife Fund. “What species is this? From which country? Did it have an export permit?”

Online wholesalers and retailers may be harder to pin down, but Allan says platforms can be designed to automatically filter out endangered species. He points to a new coalition of 24 e-commerce companies (including Etsy and eBay, but not 1stdibs) called End Wildlife Trafficking Online trying to do just that.

Meanwhile, here are some increasingly common trafficked decor items to be aware of and tips on making sure your choices are sustainable:

illegal wildlife

Sclerocactus sileri, or Siler fishhook cactus, is a rare plant species found in the American southwest. Cacti and succulents are frequently poached by “cactus rustlers.”

Photo: Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wendy C. Hodgson/Desert Botanical Garden


Succulents—those hard-to-kill desert plants with fat, fleshy leaves that store water—are hot all around the world (and Instagram) right now. The majority of small-size species you are seeing are propagated legally, but rare, flowering species that grow naturally only in the American West and Mexico have become treasures for collectors in other countries, primarily China and Russia. And that’s led to a crazy job title for wildlife smugglers: cactus rustler.