Hawksbill Proposals are a Croc

Date: April 13, 2000
Contact: David Godfrey
Phone: (325) 373-6441

Twenty International Conservation Groups Urge CITES to Reject Cuba’s Proposal to Re-Open Hawksbill Trade

NAIROBI, KENYA — Proposals from Cuba to re-open the trade in tortoise shell from Critically Endangered hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) are being strongly opposed by the scientific and conservation community worldwide. Cuba has made two proposals under the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Both would allow Cuba to sell to Japan its current stockpile of shell; one proposal would also allow the export of an annual quota of shell to Japan.

Some of the primary international consultants in the development and promotion of Cuba’s proposals are crocodile experts as opposed to sea turtle biologists. Dr. Jeanne Mortimer, speaking on behalf of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, the world’s oldest sea turtle research and conservation group, said today:

“Unlike crocodiles, which many unfortunately consider to be a success in international trade, hawksbill turtles are highly migratory and extremely slow to mature. This, combined with their complicated life history and their severely depleted numbers, make it utterly premature to re-open international trade.”

Dr. Mortimer is widely accepted as one of the world’s leading scientific authorities on hawksbills and has been appointed as Chair of the Hawksbill Task Force of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Marine Turtle Specialist Group.

Sea turtle scientists and conservationists worldwide fear that, as with ivory, the re-opening of international trade, even in the form of a one-off sale of stockpiled shell, will encourage the stockpiling of shell by other countries and the illegal killing of hawksbill turtles worldwide. A resolution opposing both hawksbill proposals was endorsed at the recent 20th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology & Conservation attended by 960 individuals representing 67 nations. More than 135 respected sea turtle experts and conservationists from over 40 countries have also publicly opposed the Cuban proposals, signing on to a petition drafted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). A letter by the Wider Caribbean Sea Turtle Conservation Network (WIDECAST) appealing to the Government of Cuba to withdraw its hawksbill proposals was supported by over 50 conservation organizations from throughout the Caribbean region.

According to Dr. Mortimer, the status of the hawksbill was elevated deservedly to “Critically Endangered” in 1996, and this is the official position of the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group. The species has been on CITES Appendix I since 1977. International trade in tortoise shell has been identified as the principal cause of the hawksbill’s endangerment. Since antiquity, hawksbill shell has been considered a precious material on par with ivory, rhino horn and gold.

Dr. Mortimer adds, “Of all the species of sea turtles, the hawksbill has experienced the longest and most sustained history of commercial exploitation. Primarily as a result of this trade, hawksbills have declined by 80 percent or more during the last three hawksbill generations throughout their global range, including nesting sites in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.”

Only five regional nesting aggregations remain worldwide with more than 1,000 hawksbills nesting annually. These are found in the Yucatan (Mexico), Seychelles, Indonesia and two in Australia, said Mortimer.

During the two decades prior to the closure of international trade in hawksbill products in 1992, more than 50 countries were exporting shell and stuffed juvenile hawksbills to Japan alone. During 1970 to 1986, these Japanese imports represented products derived from more than 600,000 adult hawksbills and 577,000 juveniles, explained Mortimer.

“Despite the terminology used in the proposals, there is no such thing as a ‘Cuban hawksbill population’,” said Rhema Kerr, the WIDECAST Country Coordinator for Jamaica. “Caribbean hawksbills represent a resource that is shared by most countries in the region, and Cuba’s proposal will undermine the efforts of range states, such as Jamaica, to conserve hawksbills.”

According to Kerr, at least 60 percent of turtles feeding in Cuban waters originate from nesting beaches in the range states. Even those hawksbills that hatch and nest in Cuba migrate to waters elsewhere in the Caribbean. Data obtained from tagging, satellite tracking and genetic analysis indicate that turtles found in Cuba originate from or inhabit the waters of at least countries in the wider Caribbean.

“If the ‘Cuban population’ is downlisted, many individual turtles will have an Appendix I listing at their nesting beaches, but an Appendix II listing on their foraging grounds in Cuba,” said Didiher Chacón, WIDECAST Country Coordinator for Costa Rica. “And split-listings are discouraged by CITES because of enforcement difficulties.

“Many feel that the proposed Cuban harvest is being conducted on the backs of the other countries in the Caribbean which are doing their part to protect hawksbills,” added Chacón.

Although the proposal claims that 1,700 to 3,400 egg clutches are laid each year in Cuba, a maximum of only 251 egg clutches were ever recorded in any one year. No data support the claim that the proposed harvest is sustainable, added Chacón.

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The Sea Turtle Conservancy, formerly known as the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, is a not-for-profit, 501(c)3 organization based in Florida with offices and projects in several other locations. The Sea Turtle Conservancy is the oldest and most accomplished sea turtle organization in the world. Since its founding in 1959, the Sea Turtle Conservancy’s work has greatly improved the survival outlook for several species of sea turtles. The Sea Turtle Conservancy has as its mission the protection of sea turtles and the habitats upon which they depend. To achieve its mission, the Sea Turtle Conservancy uses research, habitat protection, public education, community outreach, networking and advocacy as its basic tools. These tools are applied in both international and domestic programs focusing on geographic areas that are globally important to sea turtle survival. For more information, visit the STC website atwww.conserveturtles.org or call (800) 678-7853.