Once upon a time, products made from the beautiful shells of these marine turtles such as frames for eyeglasses and hair accessories were popular and common. International trade of tortoiseshell products became illegal in the 1970’s and imitation products started to become more commonplace. However,  these sea turtles continue to be hunted and killed for their shells to this day and sea turtle shell products can easily be found for sale in souvenir shops targeting tourists in some part of the world.

Wild sea turtle

Photo credit: Julie Suess

Sadly, the fight to save sea turtles is far from over. On top of other threats facing sea turtles such as nesting beach destruction and getting caught in fishing nets, the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle is also killed for its attractive shell.

Humane Society International (HSI) and other animal welfare and conservation groups have been working for decades to protect sea turtles from abuse and endangerment. The international trade in all species of sea turtles has been banned for over two decades by the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). All sea turtles found in U.S. waters are also protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Trinkets made from sea turtle shell being brought into the U.S. by people returning from Latin America and the Caribbean are one of the most commonly confiscated wildlife items by U.S. customs agents according to HSI’s partner, the Too Rare to Wear campaign. A recent report by Too Rare To Wear titled Endangered Souvenirs found more than ten thousand tortoiseshell items for sale in more than 200 shops in Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Nicaragua, and elsewhere in this region. News reports of seizures suggest there is also a thriving black market for hawksbill sea turtles and their products in Asian countries such as China, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Bracelet made from a turtle shell for sale at a tourist shop.

Photo credit: Hal Brindley

How can you tell if an item for sale is made from sea turtle shell? It is not easy. Small items like rings or earrings can sell for as little as two U.S. dollars. Some shop owners may say–and may even truly believe –that it is perfectly legal for you to purchase the item and bring it home. Too Rare to Wear has created a guide for distinguishing imitation turtle shell products from the real thing. But why risk it? Avoid buying any products that look like they could have been made out of turtle shell. Ask questions when shopping for souvenirs, and when in doubt, Don’t Buy Wild. Sign our Don’t Buy Wild pledge to show your support for ending the destructive and cruel trade in wildlife. How you choose to spend your money is one of the most powerful weapons in the fight against animal suffering.

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