Ending The Turtleshell Trade in Colombia

“I love hawksbills but I prefer to see them alive in the water,” I said in Spanish to the woman behind the counter of the souvenir shop. Laid out in front of us were more than 50 pieces of jewelry and other products made from the shell of the critically endangered hawksbill.

“No!” was the sharp response, catching our group off-guard. 

Of course, we weren’t exactly regular tourists doing souvenir shopping. Our group was made up of myself, the two leaders of Fundacion Tortugas del Mar, and Dan Berman, a donor who supports both of our organizations.

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We were visiting Colombia’s Caribbean coast to see first-hand how the Fundacion has been studying and combating the tortoiseshell trade. Cartagena was identified as the second-largest site for the sales of these products in the region in our Endangered Souvenirs report, after Nicaragua. Data collected by Fundacion Tortugas del Mar over a 5 year period showed that on average more than 2,500 products were being sold per year by 19 vendors and shops, with an estimated value of more than $20,000.

The good news is that sales of these products has dropped dramatically. After years of working with local authorities to confiscate these products from vendors, the trade is slowing down. Too Rare To Wear, with the support of the Berman Fund and other donors, is providing funds and resources for Fundacion Tortugas del Mar to train police, do outreach to vendors, souvenir shops, and tourism businesses to wipe out both the supply and demand for these products.

Hawksbill turtles at one time were quite common in tropical areas around the world. Their shells were plastic before plastic was invented and millions of shells were shipped around the world over the past few hundred years; 2 million shells alone were shipped to Japan between 1950 and 1992, when the legal international trade was finally ended. This has had a devastating effect on the hawksbill, it is now considered critically endangered and their numbers have plummeted to now roughly 15,000 adult females on the entire planet.

The first shop that we visited was in Tolu, a coastal town that is a popular spot for Colombians to vacation. The stand was unassuming, without walls on a stretch of dirt off the main road. The turtleshell products were significant though not a large percentage of the total products being sold. The owner quickly figured out that we were not shopping for souvenirs and her demeanor changed from one of friendliness to confrontational. Her family is Wayuu, an indigenous group that views wild animals like sea turtles more as a resource than a tourist attraction or animal to be appreciated for its intrinsic value.

Karla and Cristian are bringing their programs to towns like Tolu and nearby Coveñas and Rincon del Mar. Their first step is to inventory the amount of products being sold, and then reach to the vendors to explain that these sales are illegal and encourage them to sell other products. Finally, the last step is to work with government authorities like the police to visit these shops and confiscate the products. The loss of the money spent on the products is often enough to encourage the vendors to stop selling them, though it can take a few times. If there are repeat offenders, eventually the authorities may impose fines or jail time, but the hope is to stop these sales without resorting to that.

Later that day, we had a meeting with nine souvenir shop owners in Cartagena, in a beautiful location inside the historic walled city called “Las Bovedas.” These shops often sold turtleshell products, primarily to cruise ship passengers, until the Fundacion started to work with police to confiscate the products. Now, none of these shops sell these products and many are enthusiastic in their support to help stop this trade.

 Las Bovedas

Las Bovedas

 Meeting with shop owners

Meeting with shop owners

These shops are the first in a new program that Too Rare To Wear and the Fundacion are launching called “Turtle-Free Souvenir Shops.” The shops will receive a sticker that shows their participation and we will work with tour operators to bring traveler to support these shops for their participation. We spent an hour discussing the issue with them, answering questions on how they should respond to tourists asking for turtleshell, and how we plan to support their efforts.

Our next stop was Hotel Punta Faro, a luxury resort on Mucura Island, located within the Corales del Rosario y de San Bernardo National Natural Park, that is a big supporter of turtle conservation efforts. The national park, the hotel, and the Sueños de Mar Foundation has a collaborative work agreement that includes environmental education with children, young people, and fisherman of the local community. We were lucky to witness a release of 12 sea turtles that the resort rescued through a program they have where they offer chicken to fishermen who bring them the turtles instead of consuming them. Punta Faro is one of the first hotel partners of Too Rare To Wear and is putting together a display to share with their clients about the turtleshell issue, which will help to reach a key market for these high end products.   

Our last stop in Rincon del Mar showed how much work remains. We were there to run a workshop with local teachers and community leaders about sea turtle education, I made a stop to a well-known souvenir shop in town that is a major seller of turtleshell. The owner calls himself the “Rey de Carey” or “King of Hawksbill” for the amount of products he sells. And he definitely sells a lot. In one visit, we counted more than 100 rings, dishware, necklaces, and other products. 

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The impressive work of Fundacion Tortugas del Mar has made great progress in slowing the turtleshell trade in Colombia. While there remains some trade in Cartagena and surrounding areas, by working closely with the tourism industry and local authorities, Karla and Cristian are providing a model for how to successfully save hawksbill sea turtles.