Too Rare to Wear

01/09/2017 10:10 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2017

Travelers Unite To Bring Endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtles and Their Coral Reef Homes Back from the Brink

The theme for our Animal Planet TV show was simple. A family is plucked from their day to day lives and transported into a week-long, mind-blowing, wild adventure. In one case we transported the Ellis Family from Long Island into Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park for the trip of their lives.

Highlights of the week included leaping humpback whales, playful dolphins, herds of manta rays and curious sea lions. But the memory of a lone hawksbill sea turtle swimming across the park’s unique coral reef shines brightest.

“Amazing! I’ve never seen these kinds of animals where I live,” exclaimed thirteen-year-old Parker Ellis, a self-proclaimed hyperactive indoor kid, once addicted to video games.

Now, both the corals and the turtles of Cabo Pulmo have a chance of making an epic comeback—opening more young minds to nature—thanks to unique collaborations and protections between the community, nature-loving visitors, government agencies, educators and the denizens of the reef itself.

All across the tropics, tourists may be the key to saving the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle. An estimated 15,000 adult females remain worldwide but the primary threat is the traveling public’s demand for jewelry and the bracelets, combs, and trinkets made from the hawksbill’s shell.

An important new campaign within the travel industry, “Too Rare to Wear,” is recruiting tourists traveling to the Caribbean and Latin America to inspire them to be part of the solution and help people learn how to avoid buying souvenirs made of hawksbill shell (aka “tortoiseshell”, which is a misnomer). These products are surprisingly common in markets and souvenir shops in the region even though they are illegal to sell in most places. In Cuba, hawksbill shell products are available in nearly 70 percent of souvenir shops; in Nicaragua in 90 percent of shops according to recent surveys. A five-year study in Cartagena, Colombia, showed an average of more than 2,000 hawksbill shell items sold per year by a group of vendors.

“Too Rare to Wear” unites a diverse and growing coalition of conservation organizations, tour operators and tourism partners, media outlets, and others that support sea turtle conservation and promote ecotourism around the world. The TRTW network has begun educating travelers about these products, sharing how to easily recognize them, informing visitors that these products contribute to the possible extinction of an endangered species, that the products are illegal to sell, and that bringing them back into the country could pose problems for the buyer.

“Travelers and the travel industry at large can play an important role in bringing these incredibly beautiful and important creatures back from the brink of extinction. We’ve witnessed how educating consumers about issues like elephant ivory, rhino horns, and shark fins can help reduce demand for wildlife products,” said Brad Nahill, campaign manager and co-founder of SEE Turtles. “We hope to bring attention on hawksbills up to the level of these other animals.”

Travel and tourism businesses and media outlets are invited to join the campaign and help by becoming sponsors and partners. Details are available on TooRareToWear.org. The general public is encouraged to go online, sign and share a pledge to shop carefully at souvenir stands and avoid any products made of turtle shell, including bracelets, earrings, rings, guitar picks, combs, and fans.

Seeing a wild turtle swimming on a reef or from a beach while helping to release hatchlings is a powerful source of awe and wonder. It can inspire future wildlife conservation leaders, promote creativity and artistic responses, build empathy and compassion, and make life a little more wondrous and worth living.

“I’m going to miss these turtles. Now I really want to protect them even more,” pledged ten-year-old Amanda Parker.

The help of Amanda’s generation is urgently needed. Market forces targeting wild hawksbills for their naturally ornate shell are outrunning conservation efforts to save the species and its coral reef habitat. This species is found in tropical and sub-tropical waters of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Oceans. They occupy coral reefs, rocky areas, lagoons, mangrove estuaries, oceanic islands, and shallow coastal zones. Though distributed widely around the globe, this species is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, with the largest numbers of nesting females found in the Caribbean Sea, representing some 20-30% of the total global population. Adult hawksbills weigh in around 150-200 pounds (45-90 kg) and reach just 2-3 feet (~.5 to 1 meter) in length, making them one of the smaller sea turtle species.

Considered to be the most beautiful of sea turtles owing to their colorful shell, which helps to camouflage them in coral reefs, this beauty has also led to their severe decline. It’s estimated that in the last 100 years global hawksbill populations have declined by a staggering 90 percent. Their shell is covered in colorful gold, brown, orange, and reddish streaked overlapping scales (also called scutes) which can be polished and carved to make jewelry, trinkets, and other embellishments. Commonly referred to as tortoiseshell, or ‘bekko' by the Japanese, hawksbill shell has been highly sought after for centuries and millions of them were exported from around the world to Japan until the legal international trade was ended in the early 1990’s. Now this endangered species is being driven to extinction by an illegal market for pretty carved trinkets.

The community of Cabo Pulmo knows well that riding on the backs of endangered hawksbill sea turtles and other ocean life is the viability of a recreation industry centered on coral reefs worth well over $10 billion annually. Only a small handful of marine animals specialize in eating sponges, called spongivory, making the role of the hawksbill on coral reefs an important one. By consuming a diet that consists largely of certain species of sponges, they play an important role in the reef ecosystem by keeping sponge populations in check, which allows other species to occupy space on the reef and increases biodiversity. Without hawksbill sea turtles (sometimes called “the engineers of the coral reef”), sponges can overgrow and crowd out vital reef-building corals. And without sea turtles and healthy corals, these reefs will not inspire the next generation of ocean lovers and protectors.

Back in Baja California Sur, Mexico the hawksbill sea turtles and their coral reef habitat both have a chance thanks to the deep emotional connection people have with these wild places and wild animals.

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