28 Nov 2018


Marine Species Project Manager, WWF-Australia

I'll never forget the first time I saw a hawksbill turtle. I was on the northern Great Barrier Reef monitoring green turtles, as part of WWF-Australia's Rivers to Reef to Turtles project, when a feisty hawksbill was lifted into our boat.

It was smaller than the green turtles we'd been capturing, but had personality plus. Its shell was glorious - a mosaic of overlapping amber, yellow and brown scales. I knew very little about hawksbills back then, but a turtle biologist with us explained that these gorgeous creatures were on the brink of extinction. I was horrified.

Less than a year later, I was back on the Reef, leading a WWF team determined to understand why just 25% of the world's original hawksbills remained. We monitored their nesting beaches and satellite tracked turtles to see where they roamed and fed in the warm waters of the Asia-Pacific, where climate change, bycatch in fisheries and loss of habitat was already having an impact. A crisis workshop mobilised people from Australia, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Samoa and New Caledonia to develop a shared response.

Unlike humans, these ancient mariners don't observe international borders, so we need to work both here and with neighbouring countries to protect them. While they may be protected on the Great Barrier Reef - where tourists are likely enough to enjoy diving and snorkelling with hawksbills - they travel vast distances and are not so safe in neighbouring jurisdictions. They easily become entangled in fishing nets and are targeted as catch. But the biggest threat the hawksbill faces is unique to this species of marine turtle alone - it is hunted for its distinctive shell (commonly known as ‘tortoiseshell’) to make jewellery, combs and souvenirs.

Turtles not trinkets

Hawksbill tortoiseshell earrings and jewellery for sale at Honiara Central Market= March 2017
Hawksbill tortoiseshell earrings and jewellery for sale at Honiara Central Market © Christine Hof / WWF-Aus

I've wandered, heartbroken, through several community markets in the Asia-Pacific and seen these turtle products for myself. I've even found them in a hotel or airport gift shops. Despite everything we know about the hawksbill's drastic decline, the trade in tortoiseshell is sadly alive and well.

Salespeople have been surprisingly open. When I've asked where the tortoiseshell came from, they've pleaded ignorance; some don't even know that the items they sell are part of a critically endangered animal.

Countries may be signatories to international conventions like CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) but the reality can be very different. I've heard stories of poachers approaching communities and asking them to supply "just one or two turtles". Multiply that by the hundreds of small coastal communities that have been caught up in this illegal trade and it amounts to thousands of hawksbills killed every year.

Priceless to coral reef health

A hawksbill turtle swimming through a reef= Banda Neira= Indonesia
© Jürgen Freund / WWF

Now I understand that turtles have socio-cultural and economic significance to people in the Asia-Pacific. But their value to our coral reefs is priceless. The turtles' appetite for algae and sponges helps to promote coral growth and regeneration, and gives reef fish better access to food. Without turtles, reef ecosystems would be much less diverse and productive. This makes hawksbills not only valuable today but also to future reef recovery.

Which is why I'm so proud that WWF-Australia has partnered with Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL) to raise awareness of the plight of the hawksbill turtle and to help stamp out the illegal tortoiseshell trade. We're about to begin using groundbreaking technology to extract DNA from tortoiseshell products to trace the shell back to its geographical source. It's the same technique used to determine the origin of rhino horn.

Over time, as we will work with partners to help build a comprehensive hawksbill DNA database, we hope to identify those populations most at risk from the deadly wildlife trade. This will help to guide our education efforts and partnerships with regional communities.

By surrendering your tortoiseshell products - you can play a part in the survival of this species. To support this initiative, the Australian Government has adopted a policy that for a six month period from 1 December 2020, you may send your tortoiseshell products to us, along with details of where and when they were purchased, without the risk of prosecution. Learn more and Surrender Your Shell today. 

It's maddening to think that the turtles who died to make the trinkets for sale in places like Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Indonesia or Malaysia, or taken further afield to China, Japan, Vietnam and Hong Kong, could easily have come from our own Great Barrier Reef, where my fascination for hawksbills began. That the very hawksbill you or I enjoy snorkelling with on our summer holiday could end up as a cheap pair of earrings in a market – unthinkable!

Think before you buy

How to identify fake vs real tortoiseshell
© WWF-Australia

The tortoiseshell trade has to stop and we each have a part to play. By becoming more discerning shoppers we can help to protect critically endangered hawksbill turtles and the coral reefs they inhabit.

That's why, at a recent conference, I asked every participant wearing glasses and sunglasses to take them off and check what they were made of. Even fake tortoiseshell – the pattern commonly used for glasses frames - drives demand for the real thing, just like wearing a fake fur supports real fur fashion. For many people in the audience, the penny dropped.

So, on your next shopping excursion or overseas holiday, I urge you to think before you buy. Reject any piece of jewellery, hair comb, sunglasses or ornament that looks to be made of tortoiseshell. Because there's only one place that such shell belongs - on the backs of living, thriving turtles.

It takes a female hawksbill 20-40 years to reach sexual maturity and just 4,800 of these breeding females are thought to survive in the Pacific Ocean. I want to be able to continue to see hawksbills cruising our tropical oceans. And I want future generations of children from Australia, Solomon Islands and Indonesia to be able to marvel at them, too. There's no time to waste.

To safeguard hawksbill populations we must join forces to raise awareness of the illegal trade in tortoiseshell and work to reduce the demand for poached turtle products. Turtles, not trinkets, I say.

Help save hawksbill turtles. Think before you buy and leave the tortoiseshell for the turtles.

For more information on how to identify Hawksbill products, check out Too Rare to Wear.