The hawksbill turtle conservation project Surrender Your Shell, which urged Australians to hand in their tortoiseshell products, has been a success with 328 items donated to help end the illegal trade.

The World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia, Royal Caribbean Group and Australian Museum Research Institute joined forces on this groundbreaking project, with the results revealed in a new report launched on World Sea Turtle Day (16 June).

“Surrender Your Shell has demonstrated that DNA testing of large numbers of tortoiseshell products could help authorities to track and dismantle this reprehensible illegal trade,” said Christine Madden Hof, WWF’s Global Marine Turtle Conservation Lead.

Hawksbills are listed as critically endangered. One study estimated 9 million were harvested between 1844 and 1992  with their beautiful shell supplying the tortoiseshell industry.

The international trade of hawksbill turtles was banned globally in 1977 but the practice moved underground. There are concerns the illegal trafficking of marine turtles is on the rise.

Each year, thousands of hawksbill turtle shells and products are seized on black market trade routes. In most cases there is no way of knowing the original poaching location.

However, all female marine turtles return to their birth region to breed and lay eggs. Over thousands of years turtle populations have developed a genetic signature unique to each nesting region.

Extracting DNA from seized items can pinpoint the nesting origin of the turtle killed and allow authorities to crackdown on poaching hotspots.

To make this a possibility, WWF established ShellBank – a catalogue of genetic variants collected from individual hawksbill nesting populations and foraging regions across the globe.

Surrender Your Shell was set up to collect a range of tortoiseshell products and enable a trial run of ShellBank, with the support of the Australian government.

Australians handed in 220 items, wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC donated 101 items, and the Australian government contributed 7 items.

The 328 items included 56 hair pins, 48 scutes (part of a turtle shell), 29 bookmarks, 25 bracelets, 21 hair clips and 19 whole shells.

Of the items, 57.9% (190) were made from hawksbill turtles, 29.6% (97) were plastic, 0.6% (2) were from tortoise species and surprisingly 11.9% (39) were made from green sea turtles (it was assumed their shell was too thin to be processed into tortoiseshell products).

DNA was extracted from donated products at The Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics (ACWG) at the Australian Museum Research Institute. ACWG is Australia’s only accredited DNA-based wildlife forensic laboratory.

The DNA was then checked against ShellBank. Of the 62 hawksbill products successfully sequenced, DNA indicated 3.2% were likely from Japan (foraging area not nesting beaches), 3.2% Caribbean, 8.1% Eastern Malaysia, 11.3% unknown, 24.2% Southwest Pacific, and 50% had genetic variants common across the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Some of the donated items were over 100 years old which made retrieving DNA challenging as DNA degrades over time.

Only shorter fragments of DNA could be amplified from many of these older products which indicated a region rather than a more specific location.

However, this is valuable information for understanding the historical take of hawksbills, which regions were targeted in the past, and how that might be changing over time.

“As ShellBank expands, the DNA testing of seized items will lead authorities to where poaching is rampant and hawksbills are under the most pressure. We hope that can be a turning point in saving this species,” said certified wildlife forensic scientist Dr Greta Frankham, Australian Museum Research Institute, who extracted the DNA.

“ShellBank is a critical global database and toolkit to help advance hawksbill conservation and improve the outcomes of law enforcement efforts against illegal traders. The databank is continuing to grow and it is anticipated genetic samples from the Asia-Pacific region will triple from seven to at least 20 locations by the end of 2022,” said Dr Michael Jensen, Marine Species Genetics Coordinator for WWF-Australia.

“We are extremely proud of the success of the Surrender Your Shell conservation project, which focuses on the long-term protection of hawksbill turtles.  The health and sustainability of our oceans and all those who call it home, will always be a top priority in our business, and that’s why we are so passionate about our partnership with WWF-Australia alongside our own sustainability initiatives,” said Gavin Smith, VP and Managing Director Australia and New Zealand, Royal Caribbean International.

Donated products were purchased across a remarkable geographical spread including Italy, the Bahamas, St. Lucia, Puerto Rico, Bolivia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, Solomon Islands, other unspecified South Pacific islands, Australia, South Africa, the Maldives, Thailand, Vietnam, Timor Leste and Hong Kong.

Of the items donated, people indicated at least 20 were purchased between 1977 and 2021 after the CITES ban on the international trade of hawksbill turtles.

This indicates Australians, either knowingly or unknowingly, continue to bring tortoiseshell products home despite the fact it is illegal. Purchasing tortoiseshell products hampers the recovery of hawksbill populations.

ShellBank

WWF established ShellBank to bring together multiple organisations, nations, and communities to work together to collectively develop a global repository for hawksbill mtDNA haplotype (genetic variant) data, supported by a toolkit of operating procedures and training packages to guide its uptake and use across the globe.

The aim is for ShellBank to become a vital resource for law enforcement, allowing routine identification of populations most impacted by the illegal turtle trade and which populations targeted by this trade are most at risk and in need of protection.

The Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics (ACWG)

Part of the Australian Museum Research Institute, the ACWG not only carries out research focused on improving conservation outcomes for endangered species, but it is also Australia’s only accredited DNA based wildlife forensic laboratory routinely carrying out case work for state and federal agencies enforcing Australia’s environment and biosecurity laws.