Cuba Trying Again to Open International Trade of Endangered Hawksbill Turtle Shells

Date: May 14, 2002
Contact: David Godfrey
Phone: (352) 373-6441

How You Can Help

Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) have been hunted nearly to extinction throughout much of the world because of demand, especially in Japan, for this species’ beautiful shell. Hawksbill shell, often called tortoise shell, has been used for centuries to make ornamental goods, such as ladies’ hair clips, combs and eyeglasses. Fortunately, in 1977 the UN-sponsored Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) added hawksbills to the list of species that would be banned from international trade (the Appendix I list).

Despite the decades old ban on trade, Cuba has continued to allow the killing and stockpiling of hawksbill shells within the country. The country is now storing nearly 8 tons of raw hawksbill shell, which it would like to sell on the international market. And Japan is an eager customer. For the third time since 1997, Cuba is trying to weaken protections for hawksbills under CITES so that international trade with Japan can take place. Cuba would also like to continue harvesting and shipping an additional number of turtle shells each year.

In order to open international trade, Cuba needs the support of at least two-thirds of the country delegates who participate in the next CITES “Conference of the Parties” (CoP), which will take place November 2002 in Santiago, Chile. Cuba has filed its proposal and, together with Japan, is aggressively lobbying countries around the world for support. Some have even suggested that Japan is engaging in what amounts to vote-buying, by providing financial support to smaller Caribbean nations in exchange for support on the Cuban proposal.

The Cuban proposal is once again being strongly opposed by the international scientific and conservation community. Caribbean Conservation Corporation (STC), the world’s oldest sea turtle research and protection group, is one of the most active groups opposing Japan and Cuba on this issue. Similar proposals were introduced by Cuba at the 1997 CoP-10 in Zimbabwe and at the 2000 CoP-11 in Kenya. In each of these previous attempts, STC and other groups were successful in defeating Cuba’s proposals.

Sea turtle scientists and conservationists fear that, as with ivory, the re-opening of international trade, even in the form of a one-time sale of stockpiled shell, will encourage the stockpiling of shell by other countries and the illegal killing of hawksbill turtles around the world. A resolution opposing hawksbill trade was overwhelmingly endorsed at the 20th Annual Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology & Conservation, which was attended by 960 individuals representing 67 nations.

According to Dr. Jeanne Mortimer, a member of STC’s Scientific Advisory Committee, international trade in tortoise shell is the principal cause of the hawksbill’s endangerment. Due to significant declines in the worldwide population, the species was elevated to the status of “critically endangered” in 1996. Over the objections of Cuban scientists and others sympathetic to their goal of commercializing endangered species, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recently reaffirmed the dire state of hawksbills. Additionally, Dr. Mortimer and other members of the IUCN’s Marine Turtle Specialist Group have soundly rejected Cuba’s assertion that the hawksbills found around Cuba represent a distinct population that is actually growing in numbers. Using genetic data, scientific tracking information and other known facts about the life history of hawksbills, Dr. Mortimer and other respected hawksbill experts agree that there is no such thing as a Cuban hawksbill.

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.”

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 Cuba’s proposal, there is no such thing as a ‘Cuban hawksbill population’,” said David Godfrey, STC Executive Director. “Caribbean hawksbills represent a resource that is shared by most countries in the region, and Cuba’s proposal will undermine long-standing efforts of range states, such as Costa Rica, to conserve hawksbills.”

According to Godfrey, at least 60 percent of turtles feeding in Cuban waters originate from nesting beaches in countries other than Cuba. 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 seven countries in the wider Caribbean.


Please contact your country’s CITES Representative and let them know you oppose the Cuban Hawkbill proposal, which would allow international trade to resume.

A key country to contact is the United Kingdom! UK CITES Delegate:

Martin Brasher
Division Manager, Global Wildlife Division
Temple Quay House
2, The Square,
Temple Quay
Bristol BS1 6EB

For the United States and its territories contact:

Secretary of the Interior
US Fish and Wildlife Service
Division of Management Authority
4401 N. Fairfax Drive
Room 700
Arlington, VA 22203
Phone: (703) 358-2093
Fax: (703) 358-2298

For other countries, you can find your CITES Management Representative by visiting the CITES Contact Directory