Illegal turtle trade: first steps to monitoring illegal sea turtle parts
The illegal wildlife trade, which is estimated to be worth USD7-23 billion a year (TRAFFIC), has now reached significant global proportions and is an increasing threat to biodiversity. Sea turtles are some of the many species affected by this trade, anywhere from turtle eggs, meat, shells or whole turtles are known to be harvested. Reasons include a lack of suitable nutritional alternatives for the local communities, cultural and religious practices, and profits made based on selling eggs, shells and whole turtles (WWF).
In particular in East Asia, turtle scutes have been coveted for centuries as raw material for making artifacts known as bekko, and are commonly used to make jewelry, combs, hand-held fans, buttons, glasses, furniture decorations and more (TRAFFIC). Hawksbill turtle carapaces are the only source of bekko and the species has declined dramatically over the last 50 years as the demand their shells escalated.
There has been much effort working against the illegal turtle trade, but many animals including sea turtles continue to be exploited and decline in numbers. The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge is an effort to come up with innovative means to combat wildlife crime, and is supported by the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and TRAFFIC. The illegal trade can be broken down into four major components that needs to be addressed: detect transit routes, strengthen forensic evidence, reduce consumer demand and tackle corruption.
Though currently little is known about the transit routes and final destinations of restricted sea turtle products, many are working to change that. Paso Pacifico is in the process of developing a way to monitor and map the movement of illegal sea turtle parts and products to gather information for combating the illegal egg trade. They have developed fake eggs into which they insert GPS devices in order to track the poachers.
Tracking poachers and transit routes is a good start for tackling this problem, but ultimately consumer demand is the main driver of illegal wildlife trade and that’s a problem that all of us can help address, by educating those around you.