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Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) swimming underwater, Nosy Be, North Madagascar © / Inaki Relanzon / WWF

A hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) swimming above corals in Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras © Antonio Busiello / WWF-US

Tortoiseshell mythbusters

11 Nov 2020

  • hawksbill turtles

Can you be prosecuted for owning a tortoiseshell item such as a comb or jewellery? Are these products actually made from hawksbill turtles? Why does this even matter? We bust these myths and more behind the hawksbill trade.

Myth one: Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered.

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

True. Hawksbill populations in the Pacific Ocean have declined by more than 75% and now just 4,800 breeding female hawksbills are thought to survive.

The decline of hawksbills is concerning because hawksbill turtles play an important role in maintaining the health of coral reefs. By feeding on algae and sponges, hawksbills promote coral growth and provide better access for reef fish to feed. 

Myth two: Tortoiseshell is just a design. It isn’t made from real hawksbill turtles

© Tortoiseshell jewelery Hal Brindley /

False. Ever purchased a tortoiseshell souvenir like this while travelling? These trinkets are often made from the real critically endangered hawksbill turtles and their shells. In fact, it is estimated nearly 9 million hawksbill turtles have been traded for their shell over the past 150 years.

It can often be hard to tell the difference between real and fake tortoiseshell. When in doubt, choose to say no and opt for a more ethical and sustainable souvenir.

Myth three: The purchase of tortoiseshell is legal

© Tortoiseshell jewelery Hal Brindley /

False. The international trade in hawksbill turtles and their shell was banned in 1977, but an illegal trade continues in the Asia-Pacific. Sadly, many of the turtles taken whether as an adult, juvenile or hatchling, are putting the future of these majestic turtles at risk.

Myth four: You can be prosecuted if found with tortoiseshell products in Australia

Turtle hatchlings, Milman Island © Blake Castle / WWF-Aus

True. Not only is it illegal to buy tortoiseshell in many countries, but upon returning home, travellers may face seizures and the risk of prosecution.


Ordinarily, people could face prosecution if found with tortoiseshell products in Australia. But like many, you may have historically purchased tortoiseshell without knowing it came from real, wild turtles, and that it was illegal. 


So, what can you do about this?

The good news is that WWF-Australia is providing a unique opportunity to help save hawksbills, and it's so simple. By surrendering your tortoiseshell products - you can add to WWF-Australia’s ShellBank database and help to play a part in the survival of this species.


To support this initiative, the Australian Government has adopted a policy that for a six month period from 1 December 2020, you may send your tortoiseshell products to WWF-Australia, along with details of where and when they were purchased, without the risk of prosecution. Using this vital information and cutting-edge technology to extract DNA from tortoiseshell products, we can trace the shell back to its nesting population. 


For more information on how you can help protect hawksbill turtles and to Surrender Your Shell visit:

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