turtleshell

New Directions for Too Rare To Wear

While traveling in Nicaragua in 2015, our president Brad Nahill went souvenir shopping with his daughter in the coastal town of San Juan del Sur. Avoiding shops and vendors that sold these products was so challenging that we decided to launch Too Rare To Wear, a campaign that would work with the travel industry to try to reduce the demand for these products wherever they are found around the world. 

Since our launch in late 2016, Too Rare To Wear has:

·      Completed Endangered Souvenirs, the first regional survey of turtleshell sales in Latin America and the Caribbean in more than 15 years. We found more than 200 shops and vendors selling more than 10,000 products in 8 countries. This information is key to identifying the most important places to invest resources, inform enforcement authorities, and establish a baseline to be able to monitor the success of the project;

·      Built a coalition of more than 80 conservation and tourism organizations working to end the demand for turtleshell products. The coalition includes more than 40 tourism companies, which include both leading adventure travel operators in the US as well as key local operators in Latin America. The coalition also includes important conservation partners such as the US Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, WildAid, the Humane Society International, and many regional and local organizations;

·      Reached millions of people with our undercover video footage. We put together a video on turtleshell products with popular website The Dodo that reached more than 8 million people around the world. We also did a how-to video on recognizing turtleshell with Travel For Wildlife that reached tens of people through social media;

·      Created a variety of outreach materials on the turtleshell issue including the first simple guide for recognizing turtleshell, an infographic, and a photo library available for free use for the media and outreach. Our materials have been included in the US Wildlife Trafficking Alliance tourism toolkit, used by major tourism companies and associations including airlines and cruise lines and have been translated into Spanish, German, and French;

·      Working with local partners in Nicaragua and Colombia to launch campaigns to work with local officials and tourism businesses to educate travelers about this issue;

·      Created a “pledge to avoid turtleshell” which has been signed by more than 6,500 people from roughly 100 countries. These committed people are crucial to expanding the reach of our campaign. We have also built a social media network of about 5,000 people and launched a central website that has had more than 15,000 visitors to date.

We are excited to announce that, with the support of a number of great sponsors including the Bently Foundation, Pacsafe, Lush Cosmetics, the Intrepid Foundation, and others, this year we will be dramatically expanding Too Rare To Wear.

Our plans for the next year include:

  • Expanding the campaign to Asia, where large shipments of these products have been found in China, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, and elsewhere;
  • Launching a new effort to engage divers and the dive industry on this issue. Few travelers have a bigger stake in healthy coral reefs than divers and these products can be found in most places that have coral reefs around the world;
  • A new program called "Turtle-Safe Souvenir Shops" that will encourage stores to stop selling these products and give travelers places to look for when traveling to spots where these products are sold;
  • Working with Fundacion Tortugas del Mar in Colombia to expand their efforts to address this issue in Cartagena and other destinations, including the coastal communities of Tolu and Coveñas;
  • Bringing together a coalition of conservation groups and tourism companies in Nicaragua to develop a national strategy to reduce the sale of turtleshell products in the country.
  • A new ad campaign that will help bring awareness to this issue by helping people connect the animal in the water with the products in the store with.

We hope you will join us for this exciting next stage of Too Rare To Wear! 

Worth The Wait: Sea Turtles and Cuban Art In Many Forms

Arriving to Jose Marti Airport in Havana, the first hint you are somewhere different is the wait to get your bags. The throng of people standing around the two baggage areas, barely able to stand in the three hour wait to get bags checked for a 30 minute flight. The pavlovian response you feel whenever a new bag drops onto the conveyor, only to realize it’s not your bag.

The good news is that Cuba is totally worth the wait.

Once our group, participants in our Cuba Sea Turtle Volunteer Expedition, all got through customs and onto our bus, the real adventure began. Our intrepid group of travelers from across the US remained enthusiastic despite the arduous journey from Miami. One by one, we dropped the group off at their homestays, Cuba’s version of AirBnB, for some downtime before dinner. That dinner was the highlight of the first day, a fabulous multi-course meal at San Cristobal, a well-known paladar (Cuba’s unique family-owned restaurants set in former homes) where President Obama dined on his recent visit. The ornate décor combined with the creative menu, mojitos, rum, and cigars was the perfect introduction to this country.

After dinner, those not drained by the long day headed out to the Fabrica de Arte (the Art Factory), a unique Cuban institution. Few cultures in the America’s are as supportive of the arts and this museum/night club is the perfect example. A former cooking oil factory given to a group of artists, the Fabrica is an extraordinary mix of art forms, from photography and painting exhibits, to live music, a DJ, and a movie theatre (currently playing: Hail, Caesar!). The line outside was around the corner all night, something rarely seen at an art museum in the US.

But good food and the arts were not our primary reason for the visit. Our group was the first international group of sea turtle volunteers to come to Cuba, part of a partnership between SEE Turtles, Cuba Marine Research and Conservation, and INSTEC, a Cuban government agency in charge of the turtle conservation program at Guanahacabibes National Park where our group was headed the next day. Guanahacabibes is one of the country’s most important turtle nesting beaches for green and loggerhead sea turtles.

 
 

We met our bus early the next morning for the long drive to Guanahacabibes after a quick stop to pick up Dr. Julia Azanza, the biologist in charge of the conservation program (and her adorable son Dario). Our group stayed at the Maria La Gorda resort, named for a woman who by some accounts was the adopted mother of a group of pirates that once lived on this remote stretch of coast on the far western point of the island. After dinner the first evening, Dr. Azanza gave a presentation on the research program, which she has directed for more than a decade.

The next day our group headed out with Osmany, a ranger for the park to look for some of the unique avian critters that live here. Osmany is so good at bird calls that it was often difficult to tell where a call was coming from, him or the birds. In a short span of time, we got to see several bee hummingbirds (the world’s smallest bird at just 2 inches tall), the Cuban trogon, the emerald hummingbird, and many other species.

Bee hummingbird

Bee hummingbird

Cuban trogon

Cuban trogon

That evening was our first visit to the nesting beach. We hadn’t been waiting long at the ramshackle shelter that houses the incredibly dedicated student volunteers before a green turtle was spotted nesting near the water. Unfortunately just as the turtle was getting ready to lay its eggs, a storm moved in with heavy winds that forced our group from the beach. By the time it passed, the turtle had returned to the ocean. Over the next three days and nights, our group explored the coral reefs of the park by snorkel and diving during the day, and returning to the nesting beach each night. Some in our group spotted a hawksbill while diving as well.

Green turtle nesting at Guanahacabibes. Photo: Jeff Frontz

Green turtle nesting at Guanahacabibes. Photo: Jeff Frontz

The next two evenings we were treated to green turtles nesting and many in our group had opportunities to participate in the research by helping to measure the turtles, count the eggs, and walk the beach. The conditions that these turtles face on this beach are more challenging than most; between clamoring over exposed coral and dealing with roots and coral in the sand while digging nests, these turtles have to expend more energy than the average turtle nesting on a typical Caribbean beach.

We had originally hoped to have more than 3 turtles nest in four nights on the beach, but after two very high nesting seasons in previous years, the turtles were due for a down year this year. Our final night on the beach was idyllic; no turtles but a nice light breeze and full moon rising over the ocean as we waited.

Returning to Havana, our group dove headfirst into the extraordinary cultural treasures that we sampled the first night at the Art Factory. We were treated to a private concert by Mezcla, a well-known group that combines many styles of music including jazz, rumba, rock, and African rhythms. Many of our group took advantage of a last minute impromptu visit to the famous Cuban ballet for a wonderful performance of “Don Quixote” in the exquisite Gran Teatro and afterwards to see some local music at the famous Zorra y El Cuervo Jazz Club.

Pablo Menendez & Mezcla

Pablo Menendez & Mezcla

Cuban Ballet performance of Don Quixote

Cuban Ballet performance of Don Quixote

The one time we came across turtles that was not a happy occasion was on a visit to a handicraft market. As we walked by one stall, the owner quietly mentioned she had turtleshell for sale (see photo at right). We stopped to document this illegal sale; items made from the shell of hawksbill sea turtles (incorrectly called “tortoiseshell”) are a major reason why this species is considered critically endangered. The good news is that our staff met afterwards with a local organization called “ProTortugas” who is launching a campaign to educate people about turtleshell and encourage people not to buy these items.

Fan made from hawksbill turtle shell for sale in Havana

Fan made from hawksbill turtle shell for sale in Havana

Seeing these items for sale was sad but only serves to remind us why we do these trips and reinforces our need to take people to Cuba to work with sea turtles. By partnering with great organizations like CMRC and INSTEC, we can not only provide important financial support for conservation efforts but also help to educate travelers about wildlife-friendly shopping while there.

Ecotourism is proving to be a significant tool for supporting sea turtle conservation in Cuba, the tours that SEE Turtles and our sponsor Oceanic Society completed this year are providing $10,000 in funds to help protect the nesting turtles through our Billion Baby Turtles program. In 2017, we hope to provide even more support and to recruit other tour operators to spread the word about turtleshell products so we can reduce their demand.