Sea Turtles Are Too Rare To Wear

Turtle products
Photo by Hal Brindley -
So-called ‘tortoiseshell’ is in fact made from turtle shells – more specifically from the shells on hawksbill turtles. Although they inhabit every ocean in the world, they are listed by the IUCN as Critically Endangered, and international trade in tortoiseshell is illegal, according to CITES. However, hawksbill turtles continue to be hunted – particularly in the Caribbean, and their shells are used to make trinkets which often end up in tourist shops across the region. Buying turtle shell should be considered as socially unacceptable as buying ivory or rhino horn. Fortunately, there are campaigners out there who are trying to ensure this is the case.

Take action!
What's the name of the campaign?
Too Rare To Wear

When did it launch?

Tell us about your campaign in a nutshell?
Sea turtle shells, specifically from hawksbill turtles, have been used to make items for thousands of years. Tortoiseshell was ‘plastic’ before plastic was invented. The trade in these shells has decimated this species, which is now considered critically endangered by the IUCN, with only an estimated 15,000 adult females left around the world.

Despite the trade now being illegal under the CITES treaty, these products are still being sold frequently, primarily in tropical countries and primarily to tourists. Our recent report Endangered Souvenirs identified more than 10,000 turtleshell products for sale at more than 200 shops across Latin America and the Caribbean, with the biggest spots being Nicaragua and Colombia. Our goal is to work with the tourism industry to help end the demand for these products.

Turtle products
Photo by Julie Suess
What inspired this campaign?
Our president Brad Nahill was souvenir shopping with his daughter in the town of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua a couple of years ago while doing some field work with our local partners. He told his daughter they wouldn’t buy anything from any shop or vendor selling turtleshell products, but soon realised that nearly every shop in the town was selling them. That brought home the reality of how this trade is still a major problem in many places and the need to launch a campaign to educate people on how to identify and avoid purchasing turtleshell products.

Share with us a story about a person / place / animal that's currently getting a rough ride because of these issues
Hawksbill sea turtles are one of the two most endangered species of sea turtles. They face a number of threats including people consuming their eggs, getting caught in fishing gear, uncontrolled coastal development, climate change, and plastic waste in the ocean. More than one million adult hawksbill shells were exported to Japan alone over a 50 year period in the 1900s. While the trade has declined significantly, it still poses the single largest threat to the survival of this species.

What change needs to happen to make things better?
Consumers need to reject buying these items, let the sellers know that it is illegal (in most places) and immoral to contribute to the extinction of a species, and refuse to purchase from places that sell them. When the sellers learn that selling turtleshell will reduce their business, they will stop selling them and turtle hunters will no longer have a market for their products. Travellers can learn how to recognise and avoid these products by visiting our website, below.

Turtle products
Photo by Hal Brindley -
How will the world be a better place if and when you succeed?
Hawksbill sea turtles are a critical part of the ocean ecosystem. By eating sponges that compete with corals for space, they help reefs maintain and grow. One hawksbill can eat over 1,000lbs (450kg) of sponges per year. Hawksbills are also important for beaches by providing nutrients for coastal vegetation. Having live hawksbills can be a major draw for travelers as well, seeing a hawksbill in a reef or on a beach is a magical experience. By helping hawksbills recover, we can improve the health of coral reefs and also support many coastal communities that rely on tourism for income.

Is there one person who figureheads this campaign? If so, tell us about them and their inspiration and aspirations
Brad Nahill is the President of SEE Turtles and helped create and launch this campaign. We now have more than 80 tourism companies and conservation organisations in the campaign, have reached millions of people with this message, and are supporting organisations in several countries to address this threat. We hope to pass 100 tourism companies, get the dive industry involved, and to launch a ‘Turtle Friendly Souvenir Shop’ program over the next year.

What three things can we all do to help? (ie. petitions, spreading the word, changing shopping habits, lobby politicians…)

- Sign our Pledge To Avoid Turtleshell
- Learn how to recognise and avoid these products using our guide and when in doubt, don’t buy it.
- Encourage any tourism companies you know to join our campaign!

Turtle hatcheries

What's the campaign website?

Do you have a target end date for this campaign?
We will run this campaign until we no longer have the funds to keep it going, or we wipe out the turtleshell trade completely.

Take action!
Responsible Travel's view
Given that turtle shell jewellery and ornaments are often for sale in popular tourist destinations, tourists have the power to impact on this trade by refusing to buy these items. The impact is multiplied if they speak to their tour guides and share information with other travellers. If there is no market for these illegal products, then the hawksbill turtles might be left in peace!
Written by Vicki Brown
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