Unsurprisingly, the hawksbill turtle is named for its narrow, pointed beak, which resembles a bird of prey. It comes in very handy as this omnivorous turtle probes the narrow crevices of reefs to feed on algae and soft-bodied animals like sponges and anemones. Algae and sponges contain toxic chemicals that accumulate in the turtle's flesh, making it poisonous for humans to eat. But this critically endangered turtle is not prized internationally for its meat but its beautiful shell. The carapace (shell) is made up of an elaborate series of streaked and marbled overlapping scales in shades of amber, yellow and brown. Hawksbill shells are the largest source of commercial 'tortoiseshell', which has traditionally been used to make combs and brushes, jewellery and inlay furniture. The hawksbill is mainly found in the world's tropical oceans, usually in coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef. It often nests close to coral reefs, and snorkellers and scuba-divers will occasionally catch a glimpse of this beautiful turtle.
What we're doingSee our projects on the hawksbill turtle.
Think before you buy
Though hawksbill products were banned internationally in the 1990s, the illegal trade continues. A new demand has re-emerged, putting these beautiful marine turtles at risk. Not only is it illegal to buy tortoiseshell in many countries, but upon returning home, travellers may face seizures and large fines.
Marine turtle protection for schools
WWF-Australia has partnered with Cool Australia to create a range of classroom-ready lessons and resources to teach students about why and how to protect marine turtles – one of Australia’s most-loved species.
WWF is leading on-ground conservation work in the northern Great Barrier Reef to restore hawksbill turtle populations. We’re working with a number of partners to halt the harvest of hawksbill turtle eggs, monitor nesting beaches, track turtles to their foraging grounds and advocate for greater protection.
Satellite telemetry gives researchers valuable insights into turtle movements. Satellite tags don’t harm the turtles in any way and are designed to eventually fall off. The data they collect identifies migration patterns and tells us where critical feeding areas are. That way we can anticipate where turtles may come into contact with fisheries and their gear and where they might need further protection.
Addressing wildlife trade
WWF-Australia & its partners are working together to protect the hawksbill turtle from extinction by reducing the use and trade of turtles and their products. Through WWF’s Marine Turtle Use and Trade initiative we aim to uncover where the trade of turtles is taking place and identify what factors are driving use, supply and demand. To do this we are using ground-breaking technology to extract DNA from tortoiseshell to help trace products from sale to where they were poached. Using this and other technologies, we can identify hawksbill populations most at risk. We are also working with local communities to understand not only where these turtles are being taken, but how the trade is being driven. Armed with this information, we seek to support governments and help drive policy changes to enable effective collective action.
Latest updates from the field
Why it matters
Like so many marine creatures, hawksbill turtles play an important role in maintaining the health of coral reefs. As they remove algae, hawksbills provide better access for reef fish to feed. Their appetite for algae also promotes coral growth. The diversity of reef communities in the Caribbean depends on hawksbill turtles feeding almost exclusively on sponges; without turtles, the sponges would overgrow corals and suffocate reefs. Hawksbill turtles also have cultural significance and tourism value in tropical communities. Residents of the Coral Triangle for example rely on the flow of visitors, who come to admire turtles, as a vital source of income.
The future is bleak. It appears that nesting female hawksbill numbers have declined by more over 80% in the past century. One of the largest nesting populations in the world is in Queensland, with an estimated 4,000 females nesting annually. Given that it takes a female 20-40 years to reach sexual maturity, time is not on the hawksbill's side.
Hawksbills are believed to inhabit coastal waters in more than 108 countries.
Listed as Vulnerable (under EPBC Act 1999) and as Critically Endangered (under IUCN Red List)
Did you know?
The hawksbill appears to nest every 2- 4 years, laying one to six clutches in a season, with an average of 122 eggs at a time.
The threats to hawksbills are common to other sea turtles, namely the loss of nesting and feeding habitats, excessive egg collection, fishery-related mortality, pollution and coastal development. However, by far the greatest threat to this species is the illegal wildlife trade.
Illegal wildlife trade
Despite protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and many national laws, hawksbills are still subject to a disturbingly large illegal trade. Shells remain highly sought after throughout the tropics to make tortoiseshell jewellery and ornaments. Although many countries have banned the practice, Hawksbills are also still collected and stuffed for sale as tourist curios. Harvest for domestic trade continues to occur in many countries of the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Polynesia.