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In photos:

In photos: The deadly price of tortoiseshell

16 Nov 2018


  • tourism
  • great barrier reef
  • hawksbill turtles
  • illegal wildlife trade
  • marine species
  • marine turtles
  • poaching
  • solomon islands

Hawksbill turtles spend their days swimming through spectacular coral reefs and the tropical waters of Asian-Pacific oceans. Australia’s own Great Barrier Reef is an important nesting spot and home for these majestic marine animals. Sadly, these critically endangered sea turtles face many major threats, including habitat loss, plastic pollution and getting entangled in fishing nets and equipment.

However, the unique threat to hawksbill turtles is the illegal trade of their shell. While we’re all probably familiar with the stunning patterns known as ‘tortoiseshell’, many probably don’t know that this is actually the shell of hawksbill turtles.

Their shell is made up of a unique pattern of ambers, yellows and browns making them highly sought after to turn into jewellery and tourist souvenirs. Even though many countries have banned the practice, it’s sadly still a lucrative trade in some parts of the world, particularly in Asia-Pacific.

In this gallery, we go behind the scenes with WWF-Australia’s marine scientist and turtle expert, Christine Hof, as she shows us what goes on behind the heartbreaking process of the illegal tortoiseshell trade.


WWF-Australia’s marine scientist, Christine Hof, holds a hawksbill turtle hatchling © WWF-Aus / Christine Hof

We found this hawksbill hatchling at one of the nesting beaches on Milman Island. It was the last to emerge from its nest, and scrambled its way to the water’s edge with many seabirds circling above. Hawksbill hatchlings are distinctly brown - like little chocolate buttons!

An assortment of hawksbill tortoiseshell jewellery for sale at Honiara Central Market, March 2017 © Christine Hof / WWF-Aus

Sadly, hawksbill turtles are being hunted and turned into tortoiseshell products. These products are available in a number of locations throughout Asia-Pacific. Even though many countries are signatories to international conventions like CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), this is a real problem that has persisted for years.

Hawksbill tortoiseshell jewellery for sale at one of the major hotels in Honiara, March 2017 © Christine Hof / WWF-Aus

Craftsmen and women turn hawksbill turtle shell into jewellery pieces like earrings, bracelets, combs, hair pins and hair combs. These items were for sale in one of the major hotels in Honiara, often aimed at unsuspecting western travellers.

Hawksbill tortoiseshell bracelets and jewellery for sale at Honiara Central Market, March 2017 © Christine Hof / WWF-Aus

Tortoiseshell bracelets are often made by putting the shell into hot water where it turns soft, like jelly. It’s then twisted around a cup to give the bracelet its shape.

Hawksbill tortoiseshell earrings and jewellery for sale at Honiara Central Market, March 2017 © Christine Hof / WWF-Aus

I was surprised to see so many tortoiseshell products openly for sale in the markets in Solomon Islands, where it’s illegal to sell. These items were not hidden by any means, but overtly available for purchase.

Souvenirs made out of hawksbill tortoiseshell for sale in Papua New Guinea, June 2016 © Christine Hof / WWF-Aus

Handcrafted tortoiseshell products aren’t limited to jewellery. Other items like tortoiseshell artworks are crafted to suit demand. Apparently, these items are often tailored for the Asian market.

WWF-Australia’s marine scientist, Christine Hof at Honiara Central Market, March 2017 © Christine Hof / WWF-Aus

I often question whether travellers who purchase tortoiseshell products understand the connection between what they’re buying and the fact that it’s made from a hawksbill turtle. If you’re travelling through these islands or in the Asia-Pacific region, please think before you buy so we can stop feeding this demand and save turtles.

WWF-Australia’s marine scientist, Christine Hof, with a hawksbill turtle that has been paired with a satellite tracker on Milman Island, February 2017 © WWF-Aus / Christine Hof

This is where turtles should be. Not in the markets, but free to explore their ocean homes without fear of being hunted by poachers for the illegal wildlife trade. We’re tracking hawksbill turtles from the beaches of the northern Great Barrier Reef and Papua New Guinea to see where they’re migrating to. This is part of a greater ‘Bring Back the Bills’ project.

We’re also proud to be in partnership with Royal Caribbean Cruises (RCL) to protect the hawksbill turtle by using ground-breaking technology to extract DNA from tortoiseshell products. This will help identify hawksbill populations most at risk from the deadly and illegal wildlife trade.


Help save hawksbill turtles.
Think before you buy and leave the tortoiseshell for the turtles. 


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