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‘Too rare to wear’: new campaign targets tourists to end Hawksbill turtle trade

  • The Hawksbill turtle’s striking shell is carved into jewelry, combs and other trinkets, which is then sold in markets across Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • The campaign, Too Rare to Wear, will help people learn about turtleshell souvenirs and how to avoid buying them while traveling in those regions.
  • The campaign includes a coalition of conservation organizations, tour operators, and media partners.

The Critically Endangered Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is being hunted to extinction for its shell.

Colored in hues of gold, amber, and brown, the animal’s striking shell is carved into jewelry, combs, guitar picks, and other trinkets, and then sold in markets across Latin America and the Caribbean. This demand for turtleshell products is driving the species towards extinction, conservationists say.

Now, a new campaign aims to end this demand by targeting tourists. The campaign, Too Rare to Wear, will help people learn about Hawksbill turtleshell souvenirs and how to avoid buying them while traveling in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Travelers can take an active role in the conservation of hawksbills with their purchases and help bring this turtle back from the brink,” Campaign director Brad Nahill, who is also the director of the sea turtle conservation organization SEE Turtles, told Mongabay. “These turtles are incredibly important for the health of coral reefs and for tourist economies in the tropics and it is everyone’s responsibility to help them recover.”

Bangled made from Hawksbill turtle shell. Photo by Hal Brindley – TravelForWildlife.com.

The legal trade of Hawksbill turtles and their products was outlawed by the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) in 1992. Despite the ban, these rare turtles continue to be hunted for their shell due to both lack of enforcement, and a lack of awareness from buyers.

Nahill first got a sense of the scale of this illegal trade in 2015, when he was visiting the tourist town of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua with his daughter. He kept looking for stores and vendors that did not sell turtleshell souvenirs, but could find only one.

“That got me thinking about the issue,” Nahill said. “The conservation community has known about this for years but many people were assuming that there wasn’t a lot of sales of turtleshell products anymore since the international legal trade was shut down in the 90’s. But by digging in a bit deeper, it still seems to be a big issue in many spots and is preventing the recovery of the species. I also figured out that nobody was doing much outreach to the larger travel community and felt that was a niche we could fill since we’ve been working at the intersection of turtle conservation and travel for about a decade.”

Vendors selling trinkets made from Hawksbill turtle shell. Photo by Paula von Weller – SEEturtles.org.

Too Rare to Wear, which includes a coalition of conservation organizations, tour operators, and media partners, aims to help the travel community make informed choices about buying illegal turtleshell products.

The campaign website includes an introductory video to the issue, a pledge to avoid products made of turtleshell, and an infographic that can help travelers distinguish turtleshell products from those made of cow bone, plastic, or coconut shell. Several other outreach materials are also being developed, Nahill said.

“Over the next few months, we will be developing a more user-friendly guide to recognizing turtleshell items, an infographic, an undercover video, and a regional report looking at more than 30 sites in 8 countries, which should be ready by April,” Nahill added. “We are asking tour operators to share these materials with their clients going to the region through their pre-trip materials, social media networks, etc.”

The campaign targets tourists for now, and hopes to reach the vendors through them.

“The ask is for travelers not only to not buy the items but to also not buy any products from vendors who sell them, and most importantly, to tell the vendors why they aren’t buying from them, to give them an incentive to forgo selling them,” Nahill said. “The vendors, for the most part, know that they are selling endangered animals and continue to do it anyway. We’re hoping to replicate the success we’ve seen focusing on the consumers, like the shark fin campaign by WildAid. If we can cut the demand, we can put a dent in the market.”

Hawksbill sea turtle is listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List. Photo by Hal Brindley – TravelForWildlife.com. .