The beautiful “tortoiseshell” of the hawksbill turtle has been prized since ancient times. Over 2,000 years ago Julius Caesar considered the warehouses of Alexandria brimming with tortoiseshell to be the chief spoil of his Egyptian triumph. Surrounded by legend, tortoiseshell has been described as “one of the romantic articles of commerce, not only because of where it comes from, but because of the creatures from which it is obtained and the people engaged in the trade” (Parsons, 1972). Until the second half of the 20th Century, the tortoiseshell trade flourished.The tortoiseshell trade has been closely linked to European discovery, conquest, and commerce. In the Caribbean, European hawksbill fishing began in the mid-17th Century and intensified as demand increased. As they decimated local hawksbill populations, turtle fishermen moved from one site to the next. The plentiful hawksbill resources of Central America were exploited for well over 100 years by traders, including Americans, who established the town of Bocas del Toro on the coast of Panama in 1826.
Exploitation and tortoiseshell trade statistics are key to understanding the enormous and enduring effect that trade has had on the world’s hawksbill populations and predicting current population trends. While all species of sea turtles have been imperiled by the loss of nesting and foraging habitat, accidental capture in fisheries and marine pollution, hawksbills have been further threatened by the intensive shell trade. Well into the 20th Century, tortoiseshell was a luxury item used to make elegant combs and brushes, jewelry boxes, and ornaments. In particular, Japanese bekko (tortoiseshell) artisans have been renowned as the world’s premier craftsmen since 1700, when they established themselves in Nagasaki. During the 20th Century, Japan was the world’s largest market for tortoiseshell; government records for 1950-1992 document imports of more than 1.3 million large hawksbills and 575,000 stuffed juveniles. At the same time, tourist trade in stuffed hawksbills and tortoiseshell flourished locally in the Indian Ocean, the Pacific and the Americas. Millions of hawksbills were killed for tortoiseshell in the last 100 years.
In 1977, the tortoiseshell trade was finally prohibited by the newly created conservation treaty known as CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. At that time, more than 45 countries were involved in exporting and importing raw tortoiseshell. As major trading countries joined CITES, the volume of trade began to diminish, but it remained high for a number of years as a result of Japanese demand. In the four decades prior to the Japanese ban on imports at the end of 1992, Panama was Japan’s most important supplier, followed by Cuba and Indonesia. In 1989, a detailed CITES report concluded that global hawksbill populations were depleted or declining in 56 of 65 countries where data were available.
In 1991, in an effort to avoid a U.S. embargo of fish and fishery products, Japan agreed to end its tortoiseshell imports at the end of the following year and re-train hundreds of bekko artisans. Since that time, Japan has supported several unsuccessful efforts to re-open the international tortoiseshell trade at CITES. As long as the ban on international trade is in place, the 172 member countries of CITES are obligated to uphold it. Between 1995 and 1998, Japan’s existing stockpile of raw shell and finished products was reduced from 188.4 to 102.73 metric tonnes (one turtle = 1.06 kg of shell). Subsequent information on use is not available, but supplies should be exhausted by now. Interestingly, the bekko industry is intact, and demand remains high (one kg of raw shell can cost more than $1,000 in Japan). From 1991-2006, the Japanese government spent $6M for hawksbill research and $1.1M for projects to resume international trade, including trade with Cuba. Earlier this year, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced its intention to support the bekko industry for another five years.
The tortoiseshell trade remains an ongoing and pervasive threat to hawksbill recovery in the Americas, Asia, and parts of Africa. Despite significant progress in reducing the global volume of trade, numerous hawksbill populations have not received sufficient protection to stabilize and begin to recover; many depleted, declining or remnant populations remain. The lack of management and law enforcement are major challenges.