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 turtle shell. Combs, spectacle frames, decorative objects and jewellery made of turtle shell used to be widespread in these parts of the world, too, but since the international trade in turtle shell has been banned, they are mainly found in the tropical countries where the hawksbill turtle is native.
The hawksbill turtle is heavily hunted for its turtle shell 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 turtle shell exploitation have not yet been sufficiently recognised by the authorities.
To help save Indonesia’s remaining hawksbill turtles, we launched a nationwide campaign to curb the turtle shell trade, aiming to influence buyer behaviour and negatively connote the wearing of turtle shell jewellery. For the campaign, which started in mid-2019, an office was rented in Bali as an operational base.
First, however, we wanted to get an overview of the scale of the turtle shell trade, so we undertook a series of market researches during the project period, with Bayu Sandi and campaign manager Muhamed Jayuli travelling to locations we had identified as potential transshipment points and hotspots of the turtle shell trade. After visiting 16 localities in nine provinces, four regions are now in the crosshairs for further, much-needed follow-up:
- the island of Nias off the west coast of Sumatra
- areas in the provinces of South and Central Sulawesi
- and the island of Timor
Furthermore, we came across a flourishing online trade on the commonly known sales portals. Through persistent, regularly repeated reports to the operators of the portals, citing the offence of illegal wildlife trade, the number of turtle shell items on offer was significantly reduced: between the first count in August 2019 and the last count in November 2020, offers dropped by 87%.
Due to the Corona restrictions, market research could only be carried out to a limited extent, so we used project funds saved here to produce a television commercial. The entire consumer campaign was based on the use of our mascot Kimi, a young hawksbill turtle who gives a face and a voice to its threatened brothers and sisters in the sea. Kimi’s appeals not to cruelly kill marine turtles to make cheap decorative jewellery from their shells reached an audience of millions in Indonesia. On social media, radio and TV channels, the campaign contributions were noticed by a total of more than 20 million people. This was boosted by the already very high prevalence of social media in Indonesia as well as by the online times, which increased dramatically as a result of the lockdown.
Our research revealed the full extent of the turtle shell trade in Indonesia: in total, we found almost 42,000 turtle shell products at markets, in shops and on the internet, with a total value of over €340,000. Based on the calculation that the horn plates of a turtle provide about one kilo of tortoise shell material and that on average 42 products are made from one kilo of tortoise shell, we can estimate that the mass of material sighted is equivalent to almost 1,000 turtles and that the market value of a hawksbill turtle in Indonesia is about €345.
Much work will be needed to achieve the goal of ending the endangerment of hawksbill turtles in Indonesia through the trade in turtle shell.
The project was carried out in cooperation with the Indonesian nature conservation organisation Profauna, the US American campaign “Too Rare to Ware” and Indonesian authorities.