9 Mar 2016


Conservationists on Milman Island in Far North Queensland have placed satellite trackers on two hawksbill turtles in a race to save the mysterious species which faces a population crash.

Globally, it’s estimated millions of hawksbills were killed for their beautiful shells prior to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) ban on the tortoiseshell trade.

The species is the most poorly studied of all marine turtles and is listed as ‘critically endangered’ internationally and ‘vulnerable to extinction’ in Australia.

WWF-Australia spokesperson Christine Hof said the northern Great Barrier Reef is home to one of the few remaining large populations in the world but researchers believe it has been declining by 3-4% a year since at least 1990.

“If that trend continues 90% of Great Barrier Reef hawksbills will be gone by 2020. That will be a crisis for the species and the Reef. Hawksbills eat sponges and algae and help keep the Reef in balance. We fear Australians are largely unaware this beautiful turtle is in big trouble,” said WWF-Australia scientist Christine Hof.

WWF-Australia is teaming up with the Queensland Government’s Threatened Species Unit, Apudthama Indigenous Rangers, Cape York NRM, and The Western Cape Turtle Threat Abatement Alliance (WCTTAA) to try to halt the decline.

A recent field trip reinforced just how serious the situation has become.

Milman Island is the highest-density nesting site in the northern Great Barrier Reef and during 12 days of monitoring there in January and February 2016 fewer than 10 hawksbills visited the beach each night. Twenty years ago about 40 hawksbill turtles came ashore each night to nest.

Hawksbills face multiple threats including loss of foraging habitat, unsustainable take of eggs, and poaching to supply the black market tortoiseshell trade.

Exactly where Great Barrier Reef hawksbills go and what happens to them there is a mystery. It’s believed some stay within Australian waters and others travel to places such as Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Indonesia.

To learn more, two female turtles – “Ella” and “Lulu” – were fitted with satellite trackers during the Milman Island field trip. So far, Ella has travelled south and Lulu has headed north and around to the western side of Cape York. See their progress here.

“The project on Milman Island is just the first step. What is critically needed now is a major conservation project or we may see the end of Queensland’s hawksbill turtles in our lifetime,” said Ms Hof.

“If we are to save this species, we must confirm how quickly they are declining and identify where they go so that we can protect areas crucial to their survival and better manage threats. That will require community awareness programs and much more satellite tracking,” she said.

Apudthama rangers Christopher Lifu and Warren Strevens said hawksbills must be saved.

“Turtles are very important for us in our culture. We can’t imagine life without them,” said Mr Lifu.

“We need to monitor the hawksbill turtle and look after the eggs, making sure all hatchlings get into the water for future generations,” he said.

“We need to understand the problem. Research has to continue but we need to educate the community and make everyone aware while we are waiting for answers,” said Mr Strevens.

The partners working to save hawksbill turtles have applied to a charitable trust for funding for more satellite tracking, monitoring on Milman Island, and community engagement to educate and raise awareness of the species’ plight.


WWF-Australia Media Contact: Mark Symons, Senior Media Officer, 0400 985 571