Shell shocked

Wednesday September 01, 2010
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By Paul Hilton

The trade in turtle meat and turtle-shell jewelry to most of the indigenous people of the world is nothing new. But to the turtle poachers of Hainan Island, the trade is only getting better – as turtle numbers plummet.

In Xincun, an hour’s drive north of the Hainanese beach-resort city of Sanya, off the southern coast of China, a turtle poacher is asking up to 20,000RMB (US$ 2,937.00) for large Hawksbill turtles. The turtles come in may sizes – some as “cheap” as 5,000RMB (US$ 735.00) – and all the while, the poacher’s wife stands next to him, trying to sell her turtle-shell jewelry.

Xincun is a water world of floating houses, fishing boats, fish farms, restaurants  . . . and turtle poachers.

In this fishing village, a small sampan ferries me to one of the many of the surrounding fish farms. I ask to see sea turtles, and within minutes I’m shown a large green turtle in a holding pen. Next, a Hawksbill. By the end of the day, I have lost count of the number of large, captive turtles I have seen – their sad fates all the same. But it gets worse.

I stumble across a poacher holding more than 300 Green turtles in small pens, all living on top of each other. How could they survive? I’m shell-shocked.

There could be as many as 2000 sea turtles in the holding pens of Xincun. I estimate about 80 per cent of them are endangered green turtles, 5 per cent endangered Olive Ridley turtles, and 15 per cent critically endangered Hawksbills.

Large adult turtles are caught in long drift nets. Eggs and hatchlings are poached from the Paracel Islands a group of about 130 small coral islands and reefs in the South China Sea. They lie about 400 km east of central Vietnam and about 350 km southeast of Hainan Island, China and the Spratly islands, a group of 750 islets, reefs and atolls about 800km south of Hainan, also in the South China Sea. They are smuggled by some of the hundreds of Hainanese fishing boats that visit the islands, according to Sea Turtles 911, a Hawaiian-based non-profit organisation dedicated to the conservation of sea turtles. 

Founder Frederick C. Yeh, referred to by some locals as  "Hai Gui" or “the returning sea turtle", recalls as a child growing up in Hainan, seeing turtles come ashore to lay eggs. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University in the United States, he returned and was shocked by what he saw. There were no more nesting turtles on Hainan any more. His childhood memories keep him focused on his work.

“Our efforts are focused in China on the Hainan Island coastal regions, home to the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle and the endangered green sea turtle,” Sea Turtles 911’s website states. “Our endeavours here are complicated, and perhaps all the more so crucial, in light of the fact that the region’s people have a long-standing practice of hunting sea turtles for their meat and gathering sea turtle eggs from beaches to be sold as dining delicacies. As plain as it may seem that such practices are wrong, reversing an ingrained tradition and threatening people’s livelihoods are matters which must be approached with certain tact.

“Our focus on stopping restaurants and fishermen from selling sea turtles aims to curb the supply, where stopping the demand by convincing people to abandon seeking sea turtle products for their medicinal, aphrodisiacal, or aesthetic value is a much more daunting task which would require more time than the sea turtle's may have.

“While we have not abandoned the effort to discourage demand, we direct our efforts to where they will have the most potent results, such as severing the supply of sea turtles available for purchase. While taking firm action to save as many sea turtles as we can on a daily basis, we acknowledge that our efforts can only make a measurable and sustained difference if we can spread awareness and appreciation for sea turtles among the local people, eventually converting would-be poachers into protectors and allies of these magnificent, graceful, and gentle creatures.”

Further north, in the Hainanese capital of Haikou, many of the shops openly display bangles, hair-clips and eye-glass frames made from endangered hawksbill turtle shell. Those that do not have the product on display readily produce them from under the counter when asked.

Tortoiseshell, as the material is traditionally known, is produced mainly from the shell of the hawksbill turtle and is noted for its beauty and durability. It was widely used in the 1960s and 1970s in the manufacture of items such as combs, sunglasses, guitar picks and knitting needles. In 1973, the trade of tortoiseshell worldwide was banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. But sadly, in 2010, it still continues in China. Some traditional Chinese practitioners even claim that wearing turtle products on the skin can lower blood pressure.

Back at Xincun, at the Monkey Island floating restaurant, four large hawksbill and two green turtles are kept in appalling conditions on display. Plastic bags, floating polystyrene, dead fish and filthy water is their home. Restaurant staff say the turtles are only for show, and not for the menu.

At the nearby Linda Sea View Hotel, on the way back to Sanya, another seafood restaurant has four hawksbill and green turtles also in a small tank “on display”.  Whether they will really end up on the menu is open to debate. Turtle meat is a delicacy in China, and widely eaten across the country.

Every year there are reports from around the South China Sea, where hundreds of sea turtles are seized with links to Hainan. On May 8, 2007, a Chinese registered vessel with 397 dead and stuffed turtles aboard was found in Indonesian waters around Kalimantan. On March 29, 2007, an international turtle-poaching group was busted and nearly 260 protected turtles recovered after another Chinese trawler with 17 crew aboard were seized in Malaysian waters, off the coast of Kota Kinabalu. In September 2007, units of the Philippine Navy, Marines and Coast Guard in the Sulu Archipelago seized a Chinese poaching vessel with 19 crew onboard. On board were found rows of sea turtles – dead, gutted and left to dry on deck. The official count was 50 dried, 58 freshly-gutted and 18 still-living turtles, mostly green sea turtles – classified internationally as endangered by the IUCN and one of the flagship species of the WWF-Philippines.

Chinese registered vessel with 397 endangered sea turtles on board. It was found in the Indonesian waters around Kalimantan. Photo: Turtle Foundation

A year later, in January 2008, Chinese national Wang Hong pleaded guilty to smuggling protected sea turtles after shipping hawksbill turtle products from China to undercover agents of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. In April 2009, seven Chinese nationals were caught hauling in and butchering 13 endangered green sea turtles just off the coast of El Nido, Palawan, in the Philippines. A 14th turtle was struggling to break free from a 5km-long drift net.

And in 2010 it continues. The hawksbill turtle is classified as critically endangered on the IUCN and is appendix 1 of CITES.  The green turtle is classified as endangered on the IUCN and is appendix 1 of CITES. The Olive Ridley is classified as vulnerable according to the IUCN, and is listed in Appendix I of CITES

In China they are all classified as critically endangered.

One of the major problems of the illegal Chinese trade is that demand drives up poaching in other South East Asia nations. Locals take turtles and keep them to sell to visiting Chinese poachers in the hope of making money. According to Dr Nicolas Pilcher, Co-Chair, IUCN, Marine Turtle Specialist Group and Executive Director, Marine Research Foundation: “This simply has to be stopped, immediately”.

Closer to home Andy Cornish Director of Conservation, WWF, Hong Kong had this to say "Green turtles used to commonly nest on quite a few Hong Kong beaches in summer months just decades ago, but now are just rare occurrences every few years. Hawksbill are also sporadic visitors. Coastal development and the taking of the eggs to eat were probably the main causes for the population collapses in Hong Kong but the capturing of turtles in the South China sea for markets in Hainan may be a far greater threat to our last survivors”

A turtle poacher turned this large green turtle in to the team at Sea Turtles 911, after it had lost it's front left flipper.


As I arrive at Sanya International Airport to depart Hainan, I go to the gift shop just prior to checking in. And there where: critically endangered hawksbill shell bracelets for sale.


For more images on the turtle trade  



Paul Hilton is a member if the International League of Conservation Photographers.