A New Tool To End the Turtleshell Trade

Hawksbill sea turtles are among the most endangered sea turtle species, considered critically endangered by the IUCN. One of their top threats is being killed to make products out of their shells and they are the primary turtle species that faces this threat. Despite the end of the legal international commercial trade of hawksbill shells through the CITES treaty, the domestic trade in handicrafts remains a major threat to these turtles around the world, especially in Latin America and Asia where enforcement of laws is often non-existent.


The shells are crafted into souvenirs to sell to foreign tourists including jewelry, guitar picks, combs, and other items. A recent study estimated at least 9 million shells were shipped to Japan from the 1840’s to the 1990’s when the legal trade ended, resulting in just an estimated 15,000 – 20,000 adult females worldwide today.

Despite the trade being banned for decades, the tortoiseshell trade continues to threaten the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle around the world. Our Too Rare To Wear program works with the tourism industry and conservation community to help end the trade of tortoiseshell products around the world. One of the challenges with ending this trade is that these products are often hard to distinguish between real tortoiseshell and similar looking products like faux tortoiseshell, horn, bone, or other types of shell. This makes it difficult for travelers, enforcement officials, or online marketplaces to know what they are looking at.

Real (photo: Hal Brindley)

Real (photo: Hal Brindley)

Fake (photo: Brad Nahill)

Fake (photo: Brad Nahill)

Too Rare To Wear is partnering with Alex Robillard, a predoctoral student working at the Smithsonian Data Science Lab, on a ground-breaking new project that will help governments, online retailers, conservation organizations, tour operators, and travelers to identify and report when these products are being sold. This model will use machine learning to distinguish tortoiseshell products from those that are similar or replicas with a high degree of accuracy. We will use a set of photos of both real and similar products to train the model what to look for. Users will be able to upload photos of products taken online or while traveling and receive confirmation if the product is tortoiseshell. The phone app will also record location of the products, which will support research into the trade and provide information to enforcement authorities.

Applications of this model will include:

  • Allowing travelers, tour guides, and others to identify which products to avoid purchasing while traveling;

  • Helping efforts by enforcement officials around the world to identify these products for sale in markets, online, or at borders;

  • Online retailers can use the model to determine when people are illegally offering these products for sale on their platforms;

  • Conservation organizations can quickly and simply collect information on this trade instead of time consuming and inefficient paper surveys.


Too Rare To Wear

The goal of Too Rare To Wear is to reduce demand for turtleshell products through the tourism industry. We do that by educating travelers on how to recognize and avoid these products, by studying and publicizing the current trade, and by partnering with organizations based in hotspots for this trade to do outreach, improve enforcement, and study this trade. The project works with more than 100 tour operators and 50 conservation organizations around the world, published reports on the global tortoiseshell trade, and created a simple guide to recognizing these products that has been translated into five languages.