Protecting turtles that are “Too Rare to Wear”
Hawksbill sea turtles (Eretmochelys imbricate) play an important role in the health of ocean ecosystems, but this species is under threat. Poachers have hunted these creatures nearly to extinction for their colorful shell (known as “tortoiseshell”) to make jewelry, sunglasses, trinkets, and other products that are frequently sold to travelers in markets across Latin America, the Caribbean, and other tropical regions.
To combat this problem, the non-profit organization SEE Turtles launched the “Too Rare to Wear” campaign in 2017. The campaign aims to end the sale of turtle shell products in Latin America through a combination of education, outreach, and tools to help travelers report the illegal tortoiseshell products they encounter.
“The legal trade of hawksbill turtles and their products was outlawed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 1992,” says Holbrook Travel Specialty Travel Consultant Stefanie Plein. “Despite the ban, these rare turtles continue to be hunted for their shell due to both lack of enforcement, and a lack of awareness from buyers.”
Plein spoke with SEE Turtles Co-founder and President Brad Nahill at a conference recently. Nahill started the initiative after he visited the tourist town of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua with his daughter. He kept looking for a store or vendor that did not sell turtle shell souvenirs, but could only find one.
In 2017, Too Rare to Wear surveyed 687 souvenir stores across nine Latin American countries. They found turtle shell products in 32% of the stores, totaling more than 11,000 products.
It’s important to protect all sea turtles because of the vital role they play in marine ecosystems. “Whether by grazing on seagrass, controlling sponge distribution, feasting on jellyfish, transporting nutrients or supporting other marine life, sea turtles are the key to maintaining the health of the oceans,” Plein said.
In the two years since its inception, the campaign has already found success with over 140 conservation organizations, tour operators, and media partners working together in a coalition to reach a wider audience. It has expanded to countries all over the world, including China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Grenada, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, the United States, Uruguay and more, Plein said.
Holbrook Travel is proud to be part of this coalition as a tourism partner. “We had met Brad Nahill over the years at various educational conferences. We certainly knew about and respected Brad’s work with respect to conservation and turtles. He’s someone who’s very knowledgeable and involved in the field,” says Holbrook Travel President Andrea Holbrook.
As a campaign partner, Holbrook Travel is committed to sharing information about responsible practices with its clients. In that way, the campaign aligns closely with Holbrook Travel’s values, says Andrea.
“Travelers are the ultimate decision maker in regards to sustainability. So many things are demand-driven. It’s up to intermediaries like Holbrook Travel to be proactive in educating travelers. If the demand [for sustainable products] is there, then it will stimulate the economy.”
When shopping for souvenirs, travelers are encouraged to ask what products are made from. (In Spanish-speaking countries, note that hawksbill is also called “carey.”) Because it can be difficult to tell real tortoiseshell from plastic replicas, it’s best not to buy anything that looks like turtle shell if you’re uncertain. Also, we recommend not purchasing anything from vendors who sell turtle shell, and tell them why. Instead, support local artisans who sell alternate crafts made from sustainable materials like coconut shell.
Travelers can get involved with this project, take action, and make a difference in multiple ways:
Learn about hawksbill turtles: https://www.tooraretowear.org/hawksbill-sea-turtles
Take the pledge to avoid turtle shell: https://www.tooraretowear.org/pledge
Report vendors selling turtle shell products: https://www.tooraretowear.org/report-turtleshell