07 October 2010

The Hawksbill & The High Price of Being Beautiful

While traveling in Nicaragua, I made a special trip this past week to the artisan market in Masaya south of the capital city of Managua. The “Mercado Nacional de Artesanias” is the largest artisan market in Nicaragua and perhaps Latin America according to some sources.  I was anxious to find some colorful handicrafts to return home with.  The open-air market, with 80 or so shops, is housed in a restored 19th century building with castle-like walls and was nearly destroyed in the Revolution of 1978-1979. 

As I wandered around the market I began to see what looked like jewelry made of sea turtle shell, semi-transparent with creamy gold and brown streaks.  I stopped at one vendor and asked in my very limited Spanish if the bracelets were “tortuga marina” in which the woman enthusiastically responded that yes they were indeed made from “tortuga Carey.”  Tortuga Carey in Latin America means Hawksbill.  I snapped a photo and continued on my way only to find vendor after vendor with piles of jewelry made from the colorfully patterned shell of the Hawksbill which was hunted almost to extinction for this very reason.

I left the market empty handed, feeling disappointed about my finds.  The Hawksbill sea turtle is currently listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.  It is also protected by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.  CITES is an international agreement between countries aimed at protecting species from extinction as a result of trade.  The Eastern Pacific Hawksbill in particular is thought to be the most endangered sea turtle population worldwide. The species was hunted almost to extinction for its ornately colored shell to make trinkets, jewelry, eyeglass frames, wall hangings and other crafts.  The Hawksbill is also under threat from habitat degradation, incidental capture in fisheries, and poaching of eggs.  The IUCN estimates that Hawksbills have declined by as much as 80% across their range. 

Items made from sea turtle shell are often referred to as “tortoiseshell.”  Sometimes this material is synthetic, although it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two unless you know what you're looking at.  It is illegal to purchase, possess, or trade sea turtle products.  When traveling abroad and purchasing souvenirs, be sure to purchase only synthetic “tortoiseshell”, or when in doubt avoid these products to ensure you aren't buying the real thing.

For more information about sea turtles and illegal trade with links to more information, see our Poaching & Illegal Trade page.

Research Associate
SEE Turtles