Hawksbill hatchlings making their way to the water, Milman Island © WWF-Aus / Christine Hof

© WWF-Aus / Christine Hof

Hawksbill turtle

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 doing

See our projects on the hawksbill turtle.

 

A hawksbill turtle swimming through a reef, Kimbe Bay, Papua New Guinea © Jürgen Freund / WWF

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.

Eretmochelys imbricata

Species Bio

Common Name

Hawksbill Turtle

Scientific Name

Eretmochelys imbricata

Stats

Hawksbills are believed to inhabit coastal waters in more than 108 countries.

Status

Listed as Vulnerable (under EPBC Act 1999) and as Critically Endangered (under IUCN Red List)

 

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.

 

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.

Threats

The challenges they face

  • Illegal Wildlife Trade
  • Marine pollution
  • Bycatch
  • 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.

     

    Recommended Reading

    © Sian Breen / WWF-Aus

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