The Signatory States to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation and Management of Marine Turtles and their Habitats of the Indian Ocean and South-East Asia (IOSEA Marine Turtle MOU), at their Eighth Meeting in October 2019 in Da Nang, Vietnam, identified the need to continue activities to increase the visibility of issues related to illegal take and trade of marine turtles in the Indian Ocean and South-East Asian region.

What is the problem?

Five out of seven extant species of marine turtle are at a high risk of extinction according to the IUCN. In their baseline study “Global Conservation Priorities for Marine Turtles”, published in PLOS One in 2011, the IUCN Turtle Specialist Group members identified how marine turtle populations in the Indian Ocean region are at high risk of further decline. The most important threats to marine turtles in the Indian Ocean were bycatch in fisheries and direct take of turtles and their eggs, according to this study. These threats persist today.

Illegal take of marine turtles can assume various forms, from poaching of animals and eggs on nesting beaches to illegal take of animals at sea. Typically, Green and Leatherback Turtles are hunted for their meat; the Hawksbill Turtle is hunted for its carapace as the raw material for craftwork; while the eggs of Loggerhead and Olive Ridley Turtles are considered a delicacy. Turtle meat consumption reportedly still occurs in 75 per cent of IOSEA Signatory States, while trade in shell products seems to be predominant in countries of East Asia. 

Poaching of Green and Hawksbill Turtles appears to be perpetrated mainly by Chinese and Vietnamese turtle fisheries operating in the ‘Coral Triangle’ area (especially in Indonesian, Malaysian and Philippine waters); and by local poachers particularly in the Western Indian Ocean (especially Kenya, Madagascar, and Mozambique). 

Throughout the IOSEA region, markets appear to differ considerably in terms of demand, prices and trade volumes, as well as the nature of goods traded. The main regional trade route for whole turtles and turtle derivatives seems to originate in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Such products are directed mainly towards East Asia, where mainland Chinese demand for turtle meat and medicine, and Japanese and Taiwanese demand for traditional crafts made of turtle scute (bekko) are reportedly on the rise.

Illegal trade of marine turtles is also known to occur in Madagascar and Mozambique. Kalimantan, Indonesia, was identified as an important source of eggs to supply Malaysia, particularly the state of Terengganu; but important egg collection activity has also been documented in many other countries, including Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Mozambique, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and the United Republic of Tanzania.

What has been done to stop illegal trade?

Virtually all IOSEA countries have enacted legislation to prohibit direct take and domestic trade in turtles and turtle derivatives, with a number of countries having increased fines or tightened prohibitions in recent years. However, according to a 2019 CITES-led study, titled “Status, scope and trends of the legal and illegal international trade in marine turtles, its conservation impacts, management options and mitigation priorities” illegal take and trade remain widespread in all countries assessed. Within the IOSEA region, marine turtle trade in Madagascar and Mozambique, Indonesia, Malaysia and Viet Nam were assessed.  Illegal trade for domestic use was found to be greater than international trade, whereas strong evidence for continued international illegal trade was found in the South-East Asia region. Challenges for enforcing existing legislation include: inadequate fines as a deterrent to illegal activity, a lack of harmonization of legislation across states/provinces, which induces domestic trade, insufficient funds and capacity for patrolling and enforcement activities.

Mitigation measures to deter illegal take and trade include addressing the needs of local people through alternative livelihood projects, providing payment schemes and employment opportunities, raising awareness of turtle consumers on health risks and conservation impacts associated with consuming turtle products or buying other turtle products. However, these activities are still an exception rather than a rule and need to be strengthened throughout the region.

Wider regional cooperation in combatting illegal wildlife trade falls under the ambit of various intergovernmental organizations and networks, including CITES, Interpol, the ASEAN-Wildlife Enforcement Network, and the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime (ICCWC). At its latest conference of the Parties, CITES adopted Decisions 18.210 - 18.217 on marine turtles ranging from research to a review of existing national legislation, which the Governments have to implement.

What you can do to help stop illegal trade?

Everyone can play a role in combatting crime committed in relation to marine turtles. This can be done, for instance, by engaging and supporting the work of some of the organizations, such as TRAFFIC and WWF, or simply by reporting crimes when they are witnessed. To that end, a few online tools, among them WildLeaks and WildScan (a free App), are now available to facilitate the investigation and prosecution of key actors in international crime networks.