The tortoiseshell turtle

Hawksbill turtles can be found swimming throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. They are known as travellers and move long distances from their feeding sites to nesting grounds – nesting on beaches in at least 60 countries. Sadly, hawksbills are critically endangered as humans collect their eggs, kill them for their meat and shells, and they often get accidentally caught in fishing nets.

Hawksbill turtle facts

  • Hawksbill turtles have a brilliantly coloured shell – also known as tortoiseshell.
  • They have a pointy beak and a narrow head, perfect for finding food, which is often located in hard-to-reach places.
  • Hawksbill turtles differ to most marine animals because sponges make up a big part of their diet. Sponges have a skeleton made up of tough, elastic fibres and siliceous spicules – quite an unpleasant mouthful!
  • Female turtles usually return to nest on the same beach where they were born.
  • Only around 700 nesting eastern Pacific hawksbill females are estimated to remain in the wild, with 90% of all known nesting activity occurring in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
At a glance
Eretmochelys imbricata
Critically Endangered

Family:

Cheloniidae

Order:

Testudines

Hawksbill turtles help coral reefs by eating sponges. Sponges often grow over coral, competing for space, but the turtles help maintain the balance.

2007

Before this date, hawksbills were thought by most sea turtle scientists to be extinct in the eastern Pacific.

100 – 140

A female will typically lay up to five clutches of eggs in a single breeding season, before waiting a few years to nest again.

Conservation story

The major threat to hawksbill turtles is the collection of their eggs for humans to eat. They are also killed for their meat and shells, which are used for making jewellery and other products. Being accidentally caught in fishing nets is also causing huge problems for these turtles.

A growing concern is the possible effect of climate change on turtles. The sex of a turtle hatchling is determined by the temperature in the nest; the warmer the sand, the greater the proportion of female hatchlings, so consistently higher temperatures could lead to a shortage of male turtles.

Rising ocean levels and increased storm frequency are predicted to lead to increased beach erosion, which will damage turtle nests and reduce nesting habitat. Changes in ocean currents may also affect juvenile hawksbills in their migrations and adults’ navigation.

How FFI is helping to save the hawksbill turtle

During a research mission in July 2009, the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO), a partnership that includes Fauna & Flora International (FFI), identified Estero Padre Ramos Natural Reserve in Nicaragua as a priority conservation site for hawksbill turtles. Estero Padre Ramos is the largest nesting site in the eastern Pacific, and sea turtle experts now consider it globally important.

A year later, FFI started working with local communities in this reserve to protect hawksbill turtles by turning poachers into turtle protectors. These anti-poaching measures have reduced egg loss to zero on several beaches where previously every single egg was being taken.

Today, FFI works to protect six key sea turtle nesting sites in Nicaragua, including three hawksbill nesting sites. At each of these we are working to stabilise and rebuild the critical sub-population of hawksbills by working with communities to protect nests from poaching, reducing by-catch through improved fishing practices and changing public attitudes towards turtle egg consumption.

Sea turtles are long-lived so, while we can reduce the threats turtles face in the short term, we are unlikely to see changes to overall population numbers for some time, when the turtle hatchlings we are protecting today are old enough to return to nest on the beaches where they were born. However, we do know that our conservation efforts are protecting 42% of all hawksbill turtles in the entire eastern Pacific Ocean.

We are also protecting hawksbill turtles in Cambodia, where we are safeguarding their habitat and nesting beaches, as well as working towards more sustainably managed fisheries.