March 23, 2016

Sea turtle products are in high demand in the illegal wildlife trade

While this devastating trade can be seen in products ranging from medicinal supplies to fashion accessories, there is one relative constant in wildlife trafficking: Almost every animal is poached primarily for one specific feature. Elephants are mostly targeted for their ivory, pangolins for their scales, cheetahs for their pelts, and so on. But some especially unfortunate creatures have many uses – and as a result, are in such high demand that poaching poses a threat to the entire species. For an example, look no further than sea turtles. All six species of sea turtle found in the United States are currently protected under the Endangered Species Act and various international regulations. But because so many different elements of sea turtles thrive on the black market, they are a prime target for wildlife traffickers.


Hawksbill sea turtles are one of the smaller species, but their shells are highly valued for their unique gold and brown pattern. Hawksbill shells have been used for hundreds of years to make jewelry, souvenirs, and trinkets often advertised as “tortoiseshell.” Today, commercial trade in Hawksbill shells is prohibited under international law, and here in the United States under the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, many people are unaware that “tortoiseshell” products are actually made from Hawksbill sea turtles, which makes it all too easy for unsuspecting buyers to accidentally play a part in the illegal trade that is driving this species to the brink. In fact, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service frequently seizes souvenirs made from sea turtle shells from tourists returning from the Caribbean. Recently, one company serving the Caribbean announced that it will take a stand against wildlife trafficking by educating its passengers, and hopefully more will follow this example. Still, it’s important for each of us to take personal responsibility for what we buy. Always be sure to ask the right questions about your purchases – know what it came from, and if in doubt, ask for proof that it is legal.

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Carved Tortoiseshell Ornament, © Los Angeles County Museum of Art


Although their meat can cause severe intoxication and even death, most species of sea turtles are still eaten on occasion. The green sea turtle in particular is targeted for its meat. The green sea turtle is the largest in the Cheloniidae family (which includes five species of sea turtles) and can weigh between 240-420 pounds when fully grown. Because of their unique green fat stores, green sea turtles were also used to make turtle soup in parts of Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States as recently as the mid-1900’s. In fact, Key West, Florida was home to the first U.S. turtle soup canning factory, which opened in 1857 and operated through 1957. Though the practice is now illegal, it hasn’t entirely gone away. It is estimated that more than 100,000 green sea turtles continue to be killed annually for their meat. They are especially popular in Central America and parts of Asia, where locals target them during specific holidays, or during nesting season when the females come ashore. If you travel abroad, avoid turtle soup or turtle steaks – two popular sea turtle meat items that are often offered as delicacies.


Sea turtle oil is used for fixing boats in the Persian Gulf, in oil lamps in Papua New Guinea, and for medicinal purposes in the Caribbean, Central America and parts of Africa. Leatherback, green and hawksbill sea turtles are targeted for oil; a single leatherback turtle can produce 40 liters. The oil is also said to prevent signs of aging, and was first used in creams and lotions in the Americas in the 1930s. Perhaps the most famous use of turtle oil was in a cream developed by Estee Lauder in 1957 that sold for $115 a jar! Today, the ban on turtle products has caused manufacturers to discontinue the use of turtle oil. However, the practice hasn’t stopped completely – always check the ingredients list on your cosmetics.

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Leatherback sea turtle, © Claudia Lombard/USFWS


Many regions throughout the world eat sea turtle eggs, including Southeast Asia and Central America. People eat them for various reasons, including their nutritional value, but some also believe they are an aphrodisiac. The trade in sea turtle eggs is so rampant in some areas that one study found approximately 100,000 sea turtle eggs traded monthly in one region of Indonesia – a market worth approximately $35,000 each month. Unfortunately, sea turtles eggs are easy targets from the moment the females come ashore to nest. Kemp’s ridley turtles are particularly vulnerable to egg poaching because their nests are shallow and poorly disguised. As it is, only 1 in 1,000 sea turtle hatchlings make it to adulthood. The poaching of sea turtle eggs reduces the number of adults even further, as fewer eggs are left to develop and hatch. Without protection, sea turtles will not be able to make sure the next generation is big enough to replace the thousands lost to trafficking, bycatch and other causes every year.

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Sea turtle eggs, © USFWS


The use of sea turtle skin to make leather products seems to be a fairly recent trend that first came into fashion in the 1970’s. There are no documented cultural practices of using sea turtle skin in this way. Olive ridley sea turtles seem to be favored for the leather trade, and in the 1970’s, millions of them were killed specifically for it. Today, with international and national protections in place, the trade in sea turtle leather goods has moved to the black market. It is a quiet trade, but every so often we see proof in the headlines that this practice is still alive and well. In 2007, a famous bootmaker was arrested when it was discovered that he was smuggling sea turtle skins into the U.S. to make into boots. In 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service arrested two men for selling sea turtle items on Craigslist. One was selling a pair of leather boots for $1,000 and the other was selling a pair of shoes for $350. Because sea turtle leather items were once legal, today’s smugglers attempt to hide their crime by advertising their products as “vintage.” Since it is difficult to determine the age of the leather, as a buyer, you may never know if it is legal or not – your safest bet is to avoid these products altogether.

Sea turtles are a sad example of the range of illegal wildlife products available. Few animals are so heavily targeted for such a variety of uses. This means that protecting sea turtles is all the more difficult, and yet all the more important. You can do your part by educating yourself about the many forms of sea turtle products so that, if you see one in a store or online, you can report it to the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement. You can also help make sure that sea turtles’ nesting beaches are kept safe. If you see anyone disturbing a nesting site or a female laying eggs, be sure to call the local authorities.

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