Forbidden Cabinet of Curiosities

Behind the blacked-out glass of this antique curio lie valuable products from endangered species, confiscated by U.S. Customs agents. Valued at $20 billion per year, the illegal wildlife trade is the fourth most lucrative criminal activity after drugs, humans and weapons—and it is only increasing. More than 7,000 species in 120 countries are at risk. In addition, local communities who often help trophy hunters and smugglers earn less than 3% of these profits. Although the United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted a resolution combating this crime in 2015, it will take the cooperation of governments, park rangers, local communities, and collectors to put a stop to it before it’s too late.

Reminiscent of the cabinets of curiosities that would eventually evolve into modern natural history museums, the specimens in this cabinet are a display of power arranged for their aesthetic qualities. To not glorify the criminal activity and ecological destruction caused by the illegal wildlife trade, this exhibit is only accessible to visitors through peepholes.

Designed by Anissa Kunchick and Foster W. Krupp. Specimens on loan from U.S. Customs (via the Delaware Museum of Natural History) and private donors.

Forbidden Cabinet of Curiosities Exhibit

  • Tiger Rug

    Tiger rug

    Tigers (Panthera tigris) are protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), which prohibits most sales and movement of tiger products and parts. The market for tiger rugs cut the global population of wild tigers from an estimated 80,000 to 3,500 in just the last century. Poaching continues to threaten tiger populations in the wild, despite global efforts to restrict the trade.

    On loan from Delaware Museum of Natural History / U.S. Customs

  • Tiger Medicine

    Tiger Medicine

    Traditional tiger medicine

    Tigers (Panthera tigris) are threatened by habitat destruction, but some cultures perpetuate the trade because they believe that tiger parts have health benefits, or can even cure diseases like rheumatism or typhoid fever. The gauze papers seen here are laced with pulverized tiger bones, and would be placed on the affected area. Practitioners of some Chinese traditional medicine have created a market where tiger bones can sell for as much as $115 USD per pound in the illegal wildlife market.

    On loan from Delaware Museum of Natural History / U.S. Customs

  • Lizard Shoe

    Monitor lizard shoe

    Monitor lizards (Varanus) are native mostly to Oceania and Asia. Despite being considered an invasive species here in North America, five monitor lizard species are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). They are mostly prized for their skin, which can be transformed into leather shoes like this one.

    On loan from Delaware Museum of Natural History / U.S. Customs

  • Conch Shell

    Queen conch shell

    Queen conchs (Strombus gigas) are mollusks native to the Caribbean and the southern coasts of the United States. Conch meat is eaten as a delicacy and their shells are used as souvenirs and jewelry. Due to their slow growth and increasing harvest from humans, queen conchs are now overfished. Florida has banned the collection of all living queen conchs.

    On loan from private collection

  • Sharkskin


    Shark Skin Boot

    Many species are sharks are threatened or endangered—either from overfishing (shark fin soup is a delicacy in some countries) or to make household products such as cosmetics, pet food and leather; approximately 100 million sharks are fished every year. This is an especially big problem because sharks mature late and have low reproduction rates. 25% of all sharks are threatened with extinction.

    A wide variety are hunted specifically for their skins to make leather. While some shark leather is produced as a byproduct of fishing, others are hunted specifically for their skins. This shark skin boot was made in Mexico (as one can see from the intricate decorative motif) but does not detail the type or origin of the shark, and was confiscated.

    On loan from Delaware Museum of Natural History / U.S. Customs

  • Whale Tooth

    Sperm whale tooth

    Whales have been hunted for their blubber for hundreds of years, but sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) are also hunted for their teeth. Sperm whale teeth are similar to ivory and are most commonly used to make scrimshaw, or works of art engraved on whale bones or teeth. Sperm whale populations are slowly recovering thanks to global conservation efforts, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently upgrading their status from endangered to “vulnerable”.

    On loan from WCU Special Collections

  • Burmese Python Handbag

    Burmese python handbag

    Pythons (Pythonidae) are poached for bushmeat and to make snakeskin leather products like this handbag. The global python skin trade is estimated to be a $1 billion USD business. Python farming is difficult and expensive, leading poachers to illegally hunt and raid farms to supply the growing demands for snakeskin.

    On loan from Delaware Museum of Natural History / U.S. Customs

Tiger Rug peephole
Tiger Rug peephole

Take a tour with student co-curator Anissa Kunchick.

Curiosities Tour



Back to top of page.