The hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) is considered the most beautiful of all sea turtles because of its colourful shell. But the corneous plates of their dorsal shell unfortunately also provide a much sought-after material: the so-called turtleshell. Combs, spectacle frames, decorative objects and jewellery made of turtleshell used to be widespread in these parts of the world, too, but since the international trade in turtleshell has been banned in 1977, they are mainly found in the tropical countries where the hawksbill turtle is native.
The hawksbill turtle is heavily hunted for its turtleshell and is therefore one of the most endangered sea turtle species in the world. One of the remaining populations inhabits the waters of Indonesia. Here, too, the animals are now protected, but the problem and the extent of turtleshell exploitation have not yet been sufficiently recognised by the authorities.
Village Pulau Tembang, Banggai, Central-Sulawesi
To help save Indonesia’s remaining hawksbill turtles, we launched a nationwide campaign to curb the turtleshell trade in mid-2019, aiming to influence buyer behaviour and negatively connote the wearing of turtleshell jewellery. For the campaign, which started in mid-2019, an office was rented in Bali as an operational base.
In fact, only a few locals are aware of the fact that the turtles’ horn plates are pulled off while they are still alive, causing them to die in agony.
The current anti-turtleshell project developed out of our nationwide campaign, with which we have been focusing on one of the hotspots of the trade in turtleshell products since mid-2022 – the village of Pulau Tembang in the district of Banggai in Central Sulawesi.
Cooperation with fishermen
Together with our friend AlTo (Alliance for Tompotika Conservation), we conducted a participatory village analysis in Pulau Tembang to find out about the wishes of the population and the possibilities of supporting the village. For us, it is important not to criminalise the fishermen who catch turtles for financial reasons, but to find a solution together with them that can lead to an adequate life without hunting.
Besides the cultivation of red algae, which can be grown well in the region and have a good market value, we see potential in supporting better marketing of the fish catch. Furthermore, we would like to win over the fishermen for our data collection on the occurrence of hawksbill turtles and actively involve them in the work. As the animals are foraging on the coral reefs in the region, we have a good chance of obtaining data on the population occurrence there during so-called “in-water monitoring”. To do this, the turtles are caught, tagged and then released. We were able to successfully carry out this method as a pilot study in Berau in 2014.
Campaigning in the region
In addition to the project work in Pulau Tembang, we decided to also expand the tried and tested campaign work in the Banggai region, which we recently carried out nationwide to raise awareness about the practice behind the extraction of turtleshell. In addition to school visits, our local partner organisation Yayasan Penyu Indonesia organises a “Turtle Week” once a year in the district capital Luwuk. This is a series of several public events that also feature the mascot Kimi.
The anti-turtleshell project was initially funded by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) for 18 months.