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Hawksbill turtle. © Ollie / Adobe Stock

Hawksbill turtle. © Ollie / Adobe Stock

Hawksbill turtle

The tortoiseshell turtle


The hawksbill is one of seven species of marine turtle and one of the world’s most endangered reptiles. It is renowned for its beautifully patterned shell, which has scutes (bony plates) that overlap like the tiles on a roof. Hawksbills face serious threats at all stages of their life cycle, from egg to adulthood. The combined effects of pollution, poaching, entanglement in fishing nets, loss of nesting beaches and a warming climate have pushed the hawksbill turtle to the brink of extinction.

Fascinating facts about hawksbill turtles

    The price of beauty

    Hawksbill turtle shells – also known as tortoiseshell – are exquisitely marked.

    Hawksbill turtle © Mark Doherty / Adobe Stock

    Hawksbill turtle © Mark Doherty / Adobe Stock


    The hawksbill turtle’s name derives from its sharp, powerful beak.

    1,000 eggs

    Hawksbills may lay up to five clutches of up to 200 eggs in a single breeding season, then wait several years before nesting again.

    Home sweet home

    Female turtles usually return to nest on the same beach where they were born.

What do hawksbill turtles eat?

Hawksbill turtles have a very different diet to other sea turtles. They specialise in eating sponges, which have a skeleton made up of tough, elastic fibres and hard, spiny structures called siliceous spicules. Their sharp beak and narrow jaw help them to reach and tear apart their prey, which is often concealed in cracks and crevices. Making a meal of something that most other marine animals find unappetising enables hawksbills to avoid competition for food. By feeding on sponges, hawksbills also help to maintain the health of coral reefs. Sponges often grow over coral, competing for space, but the turtles help to keep their numbers in check.

Where do hawksbill turtles live?

Hawksbill turtles can be found throughout the tropical and subtropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. They are renowned travellers and move long distances from their feeding sites to nesting grounds. Hawksbills have been recorded nesting on beaches in around 60 countries. Sadly, their numbers have been severely reduced throughout their range and they are now at real risk of extinction.

Hawksbill turtle © Zafer Kizilkaya

Hawksbill turtle © Zafer Kizilkaya

Adult hawksbills are closely associated with coral reefs.

How many hawksbills are left in the wild?

Like other sea turtles, hawksbills spend much of their time beneath the waves, so it is difficult to assess their global population accurately. Estimates are usually based on how many females come ashore to nest. For example, only around 700 nesting eastern Pacific hawksbill females are estimated to remain in the wild. Nicaragua and El Salvador account for 90% of all known nesting activity in the eastern Pacific. Until 2007, many sea turtle specialists believed that eastern Pacific hawksbills were actually extinct.

Why are hawksbill turtles endangered?

The major threat to hawksbill turtles is the collection of their eggs for humans to eat. They are also killed for meat, and for their exquisite shells, which are used to make 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 the navigation systems of migrating juvenile and adult hawksbills.

Hatchlings in Nicaragua. © Alam Ramírez / Fauna & Flora

Hatchlings in Nicaragua. © Alam Ramírez / Fauna & Flora

Rising global temperatures could lead to a shortage of male hawksbill turtle hatchlings.

How can we help save the hawksbill turtle?

During a research mission in July 2009, the Eastern Pacific Hawksbill Initiative (ICAPO), a partnership that includes Fauna & Flora, 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, Fauna & Flora 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.

Data registration on hawksbill sea turtle. © Alam Ramírez / Fauna & Flora

Data registration on hawksbill sea turtle. © Alam Ramírez / Fauna & Flora

Conservationists collect vital data from a hawksbill turtle rescued from a fishing net.

Today, Fauna & Flora 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 over 40% of all hawksbill turtles in the entire eastern Pacific Ocean. To date, well over 200,000 hawksbill hatchlings have been safely released into the sea.

We are also protecting hawksbill turtles in Honduras, where we are working with partners and coastal communities within the Mesoamerican Reef. In Antigua, nesting hawksbill numbers have increased fourfold since invasive, predatory black rats were removed from several offshore islands. Hawksbills are among the five turtle species benefiting from our community-led conservation work in West Papua, Indonesia.

Hawksbill turtle. © Gregory Piper / Ocean Image Bank

Help for hawksbills

We know what it takes to bring species back from the brink. To protect and restore their habitats. We can’t do it alone, but together, we can save the hawksbill turtle.

Support our work.


A hawksbill turtle. © Gregory Piper / Ocean Image Bank