11 Nov 2020


I've been working on marine turtles with WWF-Australia for many years now and have to admit to having a soft spot for hawksbills. It all began on the Great Barrier Reef, while I was part of a team studying green turtles.

I was used to working with greens. They're a laid-back species - generally docile and rather comical. But that first hawksbill was another story. As soon as it was lifted into the boat, it swivelled its head in every direction, looking to see who or what it could bite. It was feisty, with a real attitude. But what really struck me was its gorgeous shell. A mosaic of overlapping amber, yellow and brown scales; I had never seen anything quite so beautiful.


But it was only after I learnt more about the plight of this species that I truly became a hawksbill champion. Despite the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banning the commercial trade in hawksbill turtles in 1977, populations were plummeting around the world. Hawksbills have been hunted almost to extinction for their shell (commonly known as “tortoiseshell”), which is carved to make everything from jewellery, knitting needles and combs to guitar picks, spectacle frames and decorative inlays for collectibles.

It's estimated that 9 million hawksbills have been traded over the past 150 years from 1844 to 1992, and the trade is alive today but has become more fragmented, hidden and obscure. Hawksbill turtles are now one of the most critically endangered marine turtle species in the world, and possibly as few as 25,000 nesting females remain.

So you can understand why I was so keen to lead WWF-Australia’s hawksbill recovery efforts. Building on our strong international heritage of marine turtle conservation, we've since launched two new initiatives - ShellBank and Surrender Your Shell - which highlight the particular perils that hawksbill turtles face.

But it continues to be hard work. The trade in tortoiseshell has been forced underground and the operators are covert. We've had to come up with clever ways to identify and track illegal trade routes. And what we know is, turtles from different geographical areas are genetically distinct. 

So we built a program to help safeguard hawksbill from extinction, so they are no longer targeted for trade. And we partnered with some of the best turtle genetic experts in their fields. When we extract DNA from tortoiseshell, and compare it to our baseline data of nesting hawksbills it tells us where the hawksbill came from. This information allows us to pinpoint the turtle populations that have been targeted in the past and those most at risk from future poaching. Building an international database of DNA samples - what we've called ShellBank - is a powerful conservation tool.

And this is where you, your friends, and family come in. ShellBank depends on having a diverse range of tortoiseshell products to test and compare genetically. By surrendering your tortoiseshell items, you can supply important intelligence, and help this exquisite seafarer to survive.

Normally, you could be prosecuted if you were found to have tortoiseshell, but during our unique Surrender Your Shell campaign, you can do this without penalty. Like many, you may have historically bought tortoiseshell without realising it came from a real, wild turtle, and that it was actually illegal. 

For six months only - from 1 December 2020 - you can send your tortoiseshell products to WWF-Australia for scientific analysis, along with details of where and when they were purchased. It will help us to build a map of the most vulnerable populations, so we can develop targeted policies to end this trade.

It's a project I've become very passionate about. Because I've waited patiently under moonlight on remote Australian and other Asian-Pacific beaches to watch these feisty turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. And I've helped take DNA samples from hawksbills to add valuable live genetic data to the ShellBank database. Seeing those grand females crawl back to the ocean and then slip beneath the waves fills me with joy every single time.

Now you, too, can do your bit, and take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help secure the next generation of hawksbills. We're banking on it!

Hawksbill turtle hatchling being held
© WWF-Aus / Christine Hof