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ENDANGERED: The Hawksbill Turtle

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Turtles are, perhaps, among the most revered animals on our planet; emblematic of tropical seas and a nomadic lifestyle, these beautiful sea creatures are often used by environmental organisations to symbolise their work and aims.

Hawksbill Sea Turtle

Image Credit: prilfish via Flickr

It comes as no surprise then - given that they are a symbol for conservationists - that the Hawksbill Turtle is critically endangered, with the global population having declined an astonishing 80% in the last 100 years

The Hawksbill turtle, on average, weighs 90-150 poundssimilar to a small person. Along with their surprising size, Hawksbill turtles have a unique pattern of overlapping scales on their shells – this makes them highly valuable in the commercial market, for the prized material of ‘tortoiseshell’.

Hawksbill Turtle

Image Credit: Gary Rinaldi via Flickr

Hawksbill Turtles, along with all sea turtles, are the last remaining descendants of a group of reptiles that have existed on Earth for the 'last 100 million years'. This interesting factoid makes them an extremely unique creature and one that offers a rare glimpse into the past.

Hawksbill Turtles are predominantly found in coral reefs, and shallow, tropical seas.

How have humans contributed to their endangerment?

One of the most widely shared images of this animal is a tragic one: a Hawksbill turtle, with a plastic bag lodged in its bill. These animals have become emblematic of the fight against plastic pollution, which is one of the contributing factors towards the Hawksbill’s endangerment.

Around eight million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the ocean annually – that’s the equivalent of one garbage truck thrown into the sea every minute. 

This has significant implications for the Hawksbill’s fate. One study found that 'a turtle had a 22% chance of dying if it eats just one piece of plastic'.

Whilst plastic pollution does get the most press in terms of human contributions to the Hawksbill’s plight, this is by no means the largest contributing human factor to their struggles. According to WWF, the illegal wildlife trade bears the most responsibility for their endangerment. Hawksbills are voraciously hunted for their shells, which are manufactured into and illegally sold as tortoiseshell products. Even worse, many Hawksbill turtles die when accidentally caught on fishing hooks, meaning that the increase in commercial fishing is a distinct threat to their survival.

a sea turtle entangled in a ghost net

Image Credits: U.S National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration via Wikipedia

What makes the Hawksbill Turtle unique?

The Hawksbill is unique for many reasons other than its beautiful shell patterns. Other than being a resident of coral reefs, the Hawksbills’ presence within them is crucial to their survival. Hawksbill Turtles prey on sea sponges, which prey on the coral reef – thus, without the Hawksbill turtle, the coral reef would be susceptible to extreme predation by the sponges. Thus, without the Hawksbill Turtle, coral reefs would be under even more threat than they are today.

What can we do for the Hawksbill?

The problems causing the Hawksbills' decline are numerous and difficult to solve. As many environmentalists point out, using fewer plastics means less plastic in the ocean – and thus, addresses plastic pollution’s role in the Hawksbill’s decline. Think before you buy single-use plastic. After all, that plastic bag could end up lodged in one of these precious turtles’ throats.

While reducing plastic waste is most definitely helpful, this is not the main cause of the Hawksbill's decline. If the Hawksbill is to be truly helped, its habitat needs greater protection from illegal wildlife trade, poaching, and unregulated fishing. Laws against illegal poaching need to be tightened, regularly enforced, and stringently applied so that these incredible creatures do not disappear from our planet all together.

Lead Image Credit: B. navez via Wikipedia




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