The hawksbill sea turtle is critically endangered, but even though there’s an international law against it, that isn’t stopping the sale of turtleshell products, or stopping tourists from buying them.
A survey of nine Caribbean and Latin American countries has identified more than 10,000 hawksbill turtleshell items for sale. That’s despite international efforts to halt the trade of products from the endangered hawksbill turtle, which is both beautiful and critical to the health of coral reef eco-systems.
International trade of hawksbill turtleshell is illegal under CITES (the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species).
The conservation group Too Rare to Wear investigated 50 tourist spots in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Panama, Belize, Nicaragua, Cuba, Grenada, and Colombia, and found items ranging from less than $1 for bracelets and rings in Nicaragua, to $200 for an elaborate turtleshell comb in Havana, Cuba.
Too Rare to Wear also found that Americans and Canadians are the top purchasers of these illegal products. Cruise ship passengers in particular were identified as primary consumers, especially in Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Grenada, and Honduras.
Several souvenir shops and vendors told investigators that their products were imported primarily from Nicaragua, but Cuba was also mentioned as a source of illegal turtleshells.
The report, “Endangered Souvenirs”, found that Nicaragua had the largest number of illegal turtleshell items for sale, with more than 7,000 items counted and roughly 70 percent of shops found selling them, particularly in markets in Masaya and Managua.
Other hotspots for endangered turtleshell sales included Cartagena (Colombia), Puntarenas (Costa Rica), San Salvador (El Salvador), and Havana (Cuba). More than 30 investigators with a dozen conservation organizations collected the data between December 2016 and February 2017, as part of the Too Rare To Wear campaign.
Help save the hawksbill turtle
Though the international trade of hawksbill turtleshell has declined over the past few decades, the report shows that strong demand for these products continues in the region, which has a significant impact on efforts to recover the species and help it survive.
After all, seeing turtles is a big attraction for visitors to the Caribbean and South America, including me. I’ve been lucky to see them snorkeling in Cancun and scuba diving in Tobago, among other locations. They are too beautiful, and too important to the eco-system, to disappear.
“Our research will help inspire tourists traveling to the Caribbean and Latin America to be part of the solution by helping them to purchase wisely,” said Brad Nahill, President and Co-Founder of SEE Turtles and director of Too Rare To Wear, co-author on the report.
Too Rare To Wear is a non-profit project of The Ocean Foundation partnering with a coalition of conservation organizations, tour operators and tourism partners, media outlets, and others that support sea turtle conservation and promote ecotourism around the world.
Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, past president of the International Sea Turtle Society, helps put it into perspective:
“Travel inspires people to learn, form lifelong memories and care about nature. By purchasing local handmade souvenirs that aren’t made from turtleshell or from other animals, people can support the positive changes this campaign promotes and be part of building the well-being of coastal communities and oceans.”
Too Rare to Wear is calling on cruise ship companies to help stop this trade by educating both travel agents and passengers on how to avoid illegal turtleshell trinkets, jewelry and other souvenirs. products.
Beyond being illegal to sell, you are breaking the law by having them shipped or bringing them back into the U.S.
As of early 2017, the world’s tropical beaches host an estimated 15,000 remaining nesting female hawksbill sea turtles. Market forces targeting hawksbills are outrunning conservation efforts to save the species and its coral reef habitat.
This species is found in tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans.
Considered to be the most beautiful of sea turtles owing to their colorful shell, which helps to camouflage them in coral reefs, this beauty has also led to their severe decline. It’s estimated that in the last 100 years global hawksbill populations have declined by a staggering 90 percent. Their shell is covered in colorful gold, brown, orange, and reddish streaked overlapping scales (also called scutes) which can be polished and carved to make jewelry, trinkets, and other embellishments.
Riding on the backs of endangered hawksbill sea turtles and other ocean life is the viability of a recreation industry centered on coral reefs worth well over $10 billion annually.
Only a small handful of marine animals specialize in eating sponges, making the role of the hawksbill on coral reefs an important one. By consuming a diet that consists largely of certain species of sponges, they play an important role in the reef ecosystem by keeping sponge populations in check, which allows other species to occupy space on the reef and increases biodiversity.
Without hawksbill sea turtles, sponges can overgrow and crowd out vital reef-building corals, damaging the very places that many travelers are coming to visit.
The full report can be downloaded from www.TooRareToWear.org/Report.
Photos courtesy Too Rare to Wear and Britannica.com