“No One Should Wear Turtle Shell … Except a Turtle!”
Witnessing thousands of hawksbill sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs, or watching tiny turtle hatchlings race to the sea, is the dream of a lifetime for many travelers. But often the nature lovers who visit Central America to experience these marvels unwittingly contribute to the turtle’s extinction. Illegal trade in hawksbill turtle shell—used to make everything from jewelry to guitar picks and other souvenirs—is destroying the hawksbill population. Now critically endangered, in the past 100 years, the hawksbill’s numbers have dwindled by an estimated 90%, threatened by pollution, fishing, coastal development, and illegal harvest of their shells.
In June 2017 Viaventure joined the international campaign “Too Rare to Wear” (TRTW) to protect hawksbill sea turtles. Founded by the SEE Turtles conservation group, TRTW unites more than 50 nonprofit organizations and travel businesses to help protect this impressive creature.
For Viaventure, the decision to join TRTW was simple. “Too Rare to Wear is an important cause that goes along with our core belief of sustainable tourism,” said Viaventure co-founder Beat Brunschwiler. “It’s also why we founded the Viaventure Foundation in 2006: We’re dedicated to giving our clients the best travel experiences possible, but we’re also doing everything possible to ensure future generations can experience what our clients do.”
Beyond its natural beauty, the hawksbill plays a critical role in maintaining coral reefs—a vital part of the marine ecosystem. Each hawksbill consumes more than 1,000 pounds of sponges per year, according to the 2017 report, Endangered Souvenirs. This unique diet prevents sponges from crowding out the sea corals that form coral reefs, which create essential marine life habitats, provide food for millions of people worldwide, reduce beach erosion, and generate nearly $10 billion in recreation each year.
But TRTW faces an uphill battle. Although virtually all Central American countries prohibit the harvest and sale of hawksbill products, enforcement is difficult and the turtle shell market remains brisk. More than 70% of Nicaraguan souvenir shops displayed turtle shell products in the Endangered Souvenirs study, as did many shops in Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador (none were spotted in Belize). Some shop owners did not understand about the illegality of hawksbill shell, while others felt it was illegal to harvest but legal to sell.
Travelers are often likewise unaware. Many don’t realize their “tortoise shell” trinkets come from a critically endangered turtle and are shocked to learn they could suffer large fines or imprisonment for bringing hawksbill shell into countries like the USA.
TRTW awakens travelers to the sad truth about turtle shell products, and urges them to take the following, simple steps to help preserve hawksbill turtles:
- Never buy sea turtle souvenirs.
- Ask what [souvenirs are] made of.
- Don’t buy from vendor who sell turtle shell – and tell them why.
- Support local artisans by buying alternative crafts made from coconut shell.
- Read the TRTW guide to learn how to recognize sea turtle products.
TRTW’s website, www.TooRareToWear.org, is packed with free resources for travel professionals and others, including training materials; multilingual, laminated materials to post in hotels and attractions; web-based content for pre-trip materials; photos for catalogues; and more. It also features a clear, easy-to-understand infograph showing the differences between real turtle shell, plastic, coconut shell, and horn; a powerful campaign video for sharing; and the full-length Endangered Souvenirs report.
“To me, it comes down to this: No one should wear turtle shell … except a turtle!” said Brunschwiler. “Everyone connected with Viaventure feels as strongly about this as we do. With time and sustained effort, I know we’ll make a difference.”