By Andrea Sachs • The Washington Post

Obviously, that carved rhino horn for sale at a foreign marketplace should not come home with you. Nor should the leopard skin, the narwhal tusk and the whale meat. But what about the queen conch from your Caribbean holiday or the caviar from the London airport duty-free shop? Not so obvious, is it?

Travelers — and that special subgroup of shoppers who travel — need know which wildlife items are permitted into the States and which ones are banned. The exotic animal test is unreliable. Many less toothy animals, birds, reptiles, plants, fish and shells are legally protected. Choose your souvenirs unwisely and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could confiscate your purchases upon your return.

The issue has implications beyond wasting money. Wildlife trafficking threatens the sustainability and survival of hundreds of species worldwide. Many nefarious individuals and groups, such as poachers, corrupt government officials and organized crime syndicates, benefit from these illegal sales. Buying that $4 tortoise ring doesn’t seem so innocent anymore.

“There is no way the general consumer has any way of knowing how it was obtained,” said Ann-Marie Holmes, a senior wildlife inspector with the agency.

An array of state, federal and international laws regulates the wildlife trade. One of the most prominent accords is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which counts nearly every country as a member. Species listed under CITES Appendix I are the most at-risk, and the treaty has placed a near-total ban on commercial goods exploiting these animals. Members of this club include sea turtles, cheetahs, tigers and black rhinos.

There is more wiggle room with species categorized under Appendix II and Appendix III, as long as the traveler obtains the proper permit or certificate. For instance, under the personal baggage exemption rule, you can carry a “reasonable” amount of an item. But some species are not eligible for this exemption and not all countries recognize it.

Wildlife protection experts advise travelers to familiarize themselves with the laws before upcoming trips. Start with the service’s “Traveling to the Caribbean” and “Tips for Travelers,” and the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s “Stopping the Illegal Wildlife Trade.”

Sample advice: Under the heading “Please Don’t Buy,” IFAW urges people to avoid handbags, shoes, watch straps and belts made of reptile skins. For any lingering questions, contact the Fish and Wildlife Service office at your return port.

Of course, much of the thrill of shopping involves spontaneous discoveries. Before you departed for Australia, you probably didn’t know how great the Crocodile Dundee hat would look on your head.

Reputable retailers should know the legal status and origin of the wildlife items they are selling and provide you with a document to present at customs. Unfortunately, employees might not always be well-versed in the laws governing their clothing, crafts or jewelry.

But that won’t stop them from attaching a price tag to the object.

“Just because it’s for sale,” Holmes said, “doesn’t mean it’s legal.”

To avoid the risk, the agent offers a simple solution: “Don’t buy wildlife. Buy a magnet, buy a T-shirt.”