Ignorance of Import Restrictions on Endangered Species Is No Defence!

Posted: 2nd April 2020

Electric guitarThe list of goods which cannot be imported to the UK without a special permit – in order to protect endangered flora and fauna – is subject to constant change and failing to keep abreast of the rules can have grave consequences. A case on point concerned an importer of musical instruments which found itself in dire financial straits after 96 guitars were seized by customs officers at Felixstowe.

The electric guitars were in part made from Dalbergia latifolia, commonly known as Indian rosewood. A few months before their import to the UK from South Korea, that species had been added to those listed in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Although the South Korean authorities had issued an export permit, the goods – which were worth over $40,000 – were seized on arrival in the UK due to the absence of a CITES-compliant import permit. Following a review, Border Force refused to restore the goods to the importer.

In challenging that decision, the importer said that it had imported similar guitars for many years and was unaware that Indian rosewood had been added to the CITES list or that a special permit was required. The protected wood made up only about 5 per cent of the guitars’ overall weight and the importer stated that it relied on the advice of its shipping agent. The seizure represented a financial disaster for the importer, which very nearly went out of business.

In ruling on the matter, the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) noted that there was no evidence that the importer independently monitored import requirements arising from CITES. It was not reasonable for a business which regularly imported musical instruments to rely solely on the advice of others rather than performing its own checks.

In upholding the appeal, however, the FTT found that a Border Force officer had wrongly concluded that the importer had been placed on notice by a previous seizure and that the import of the guitars was thus a ‘second offence’. Neither of those statements was correct in the light of the circumstances of the earlier seizure. The refusal to restore the goods was declared unreasonable and Border Force was directed to reconsider the matter.