There are seven species of sea turtle that have swum in the waters of our planet since the time of the dinosaurs. These creatures have successfully survived natural disasters, predators and other threats for millions of years.

Now, human activity appears to be a problem they cannot surmount. Multitudes of sea turtles are killed each year. Their shell is used to manufacture expensive artifacts that can be sold to tourists. Their meat is eaten as a luxury product, and their blood and eggs are considered to have special medicinal properties when consumed. Unfortunately, many communities along the Mediterranean Sea, or other coastal areas frequented by turtles, are involved in the illegal exploitation of turtles either knowingly or unwittingly.

Historically indigenous peoples harvested sea turtles in small numbers, however the versatility of turtles as a commodity combined with their utter defenselessness has turned a sustainable hunting practice into a destructive commercial enterprise that has, combined with other threats, left all seven species of sea turtle endangered.
A turtle slaughtered for its meat on the beaches of Boavista Island (Photo: Daniel Cejudo, Proyecto Cabo Verde Natura)

Commercial Uses of Sea Turtle Parts

Fatty tissues are processed to make oil and creams. These tissues were historically used to produce oil for lamps, boat varnish, and cosmetics. Currently vials of turtle oil are marketed as medicines or for use as an aphrodisiac.

Blood: In some cultures sea turtle blood is used as a cure for anemia and taken to promote fertility.

Eggs are sold as a delicacy and touted to promote longevity and virility

Shells of Hawksbill turtles are used as material for various artifacts. Whole shells are varnished and sold as decoration or individual scales can be molded into jewelry, or used as decoration on any number of objects

Meat from turtles is traditionally eaten in many cultures or served as a delicacy to tourists.

Threats to Green Turtles  
The Green Turtle has been subject to exploitation since the 1600s when British colonists first arrived Jamaica and Bermuda. Turtle meat was imported from the Cayman Islands and soon became a staple food. On long sea voyages turtles also provided a continuous supply of fresh meat, as they were easy to keep alive on board until they were needed for sustenance.

Laws preventing the exploitation have been recorded as early as 1620 when settlers first began to notice the significant decline in Green Turtle populations. These laws proved to be unenforceable however, and by the 20th century there was high demand internationally for nearly every part of the Green Turtle’s body and shell.

Across the world, Green Turtle eggs and meat are considered a gourmet food, the shells can be carved into ornaments and jewelry, and the skin is tanned into leather. In some markets one can even find entire baby turtles that have been stuffed and sold as keepsakes.

Historic records show that at the beginning of the 20th century it was normal to catch Green Turtles weighing nearly 1,000 pounds, however the continual exploitation of these turtles has literally caused them to shrink. Today, a 300-pound Green Turtle would be considered abnormally large.

Although the Green Turtle is internationally recognized as a threatened species certain countries still allow the slaughter or importation of Green Turtle products for economic or cultural reasons. Other places lack the resources to effectively enforce turtle protection legislation. For these reasons, a large black market for Green Turtle products still exists worldwide which draws in local participation with the promise of a significantly higher income than that which could be earned simply by fishing or other endevors.

Threats to Hawksbill Turtles

Hawksbill Turtles are most famous for their beautiful shells, which are turned into jewelry, eyeglass frames and other trinkets. Entire turtles have also been found stuffed and sold as wall hangings. Although steps have been taken to prevent the international trafficking of Hawksbill shells, a large underground market still exists and some countries, most notably Japan, still openly permit the sale of Hawksbill shell artifacts.

Threats to Olive Ridley Turtles

Olive Ridley Turtles find themselves particularly at risk due to their nesting practices. While most other turtles nest individually, Olive Ridleys take part in mass nesting where thousands of females congregate on the same beach on a certain night. As a result, they become easy targets for poachers, who can collect many turtles and eggs in the same night.

A Hawksbill Turtle is butchered in the Gulf of Venezuela (Photo: Hector Barrios-Garrido. Grupo de Trabajo en Tortugas Marinas del Golfo de Venezuela)

One man was particularly infamous for his role in the exploitation of Olive Ridleys in Mexico. Antonio Suarez ran a number of plants that processed Olive Ridleys for international sale. In 1978 alone, one of these plants processed over 50,000 Ridleys, 90% of which had been collected during nesting. In 1980, Suarez was involved in a failed attempt to smuggle roughly 106,000 pounds of Olive Ridley meat into the US, which was estimated to have come from 8,800 turtles.
Despite his indictment for smuggling, Suarez still owned and operated 3 slaughterhouses as late as 1990.

Suarez’s and other similar large-scale operations had a devastating effect on the Olive Ridley population that may prove to be irreversible. Today, there is still a significant amount of black market activity involving Olive Ridley Turtles, although large-scale slaughtering operations have been largely shut down.
  A dead Olive Ridley cut open for eggs on the Pacific Coast of Guatemala (Photo: Rachel Brittain)
Threats to Kemp Ridley Turtles

Although at one time Kemp Ridley Turtles were common throughout the Caribbean, by the 1940s, nesting activity was only seen on one beach in northeastern Mexico. Even then, one mast nesting on this beach was estimated to have included 40,000 female turtles. Several years later, after the continued unchecked harvesting of females during nesting, only 500 nests were recorded. Research shows that in recent years the Kemp Ridley population has begun to increase again, but existing Kemp Ridleys are still vulnerable to the types of exploitation that affect all sea turtles.

  A rare Kemp Ridley nesting at Padre Island (Photo: Cynthia Rubio)

Threats to Loggerhead Turtles

Despite significant efforts to conserve Loggerhead Turtle populations worldwide these turtles are especially vulnerable to the destructive impacts of fishing as well as black market activities. Due to their unwieldy size, it is easy for them to become entangled in drift nets and long fishing lines, which can wrap tightly enough to injure or kill the turtle. Loggerhead nesting beaches in the Mediterranean are particularly vulnerable to development for tourism, which discourages the females from leaving the water to nest. Loggerhead shells are also particularly coveted for their ornamental value.

Loggerhead carapaces put out for sale in Mdiq Market, Morocco (Photo: Wafae Benhardouze and Mustapha Aksissou)  
Threats to the Flat Back Turtle

Perhaps because their meat is considered distasteful, the Flat Back Turtle appears to be less at risk than other sea turtle species. Conservation efforts in Australia and the surrounding islands (the only region where the Flat Back is commonly found) have helped to protect nesting areas from poaching activity although the harvesting of eggs has yet to be eliminated.

  A Flat Back Turtle sighted early one morning on Barrow Island (Photo: Jarrad Sherborne)
The Leatherback Turtle, as the largest living species of sea turtle is particularly valued for its meat and eggs. Egg harvesting has been particularly problematic and has caused a significant decline in population. Drift nets also pose a sever threat to Leatherbacks as they are unable to escape drowning in them once they become trapped.
A poacher in Oaxaca, Mexico takes eggs from a nesting Leatherback. (Photo: Alejandro Fallabrino)  


- www.cites.org
- http://www.sos-seaturtles.ch In English and French
- http://www.cccturtle.org/cites.php


- http://www.endangeredspecieshandbook.org/trade_reptile_seaturtles.php
- www.cat.inist.fr ? Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris / Congrès sur le commerce et l’exploitation des animaux sauvages. Only in French.
- www.c-3.org.uk
- www.fieldstudies.org
- www.frinos.com
Acknowledgement to Samantha Nier for her help with this webpage.