New SEE Shell Mobile Application Available to Help Tackle the Illegal Tortoiseshell Trade

By Brad Nahill & Alexander Robillard, SEE Turtles

Conservation non-profit SEE Turtles has launched an innovative mobile application that will help address the illegal trade of hawksbill sea turtle shells. The beautiful shells of this critically endangered species, commonly referred to as “tortoiseshell,” are used to create jewellery and ornamental souvenirs in many countries. The SEE Shell App employs machine learning to differentiate real and faux tortoiseshell products; it is the first mobile application to use artificial intelligence to combat the illegal wildlife trade. This novel technology will enable tourists, law enforcement, and wildlife officials to quickly identify products made of authentic tortoiseshell.

Despite international laws against the sale of tortoiseshell goods, the tortoiseshell trade is active in at least 40 countries, according to SEE Turtles 2020 “Global Tortoiseshell Trade” report, and it remains the primary threat to hawksbill sea turtles. With an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 adult female hawksbill turtles remaining in the wild, this ground-breaking mobile application will play a key role in bringing these animals back from the brink of extinction.

A key problem is the difficulty in distinguishing real from fake products, whether by a consumer or law enforcement officer. Because telling these products apart can be very difficult, retailers and shoppers often unwittingly contribute to the trade. SEE Shell will help eliminate this confusion. This highly accurate application can now discern whether an item is made of real hawksbill shell or from faux tortoiseshell materials such as resin, horn, bone, seashells, or coconut shells with at least 94% accuracy by simply taking a photo.

The mobile application utilizes deep learning technology that compares product photos taken by app users to a data library of more than 4,000 real and artificial tortoiseshell products. As images are stored in the catalogue from locations around the globe, a clearer understanding of the size and location of the illegal tortoiseshell trade will emerge. This evidence will inform where trade enforcement and hawksbill conservation are most needed.

The app can help individual consumers identify and avoid endangered animal products, thereby doing their part in reducing demand for tortoiseshell products. In addition, for the first time, it provides law enforcement officials with a tool they can use to identify these products for sale in markets, online, and when intercepted or confiscated at border crossings.

A part of SEE Turtles’ “Too Rare to Wear” campaign, partnering organizations in Indonesia and Latin America have helped to test the app in the field and will train local law enforcement officials on how to use the application to document the presence of tortoiseshell trade in their regions. Too Rare To Wear has partnered with WWF to help build and share the app, in addition to partners in the field who helped to test and implement the app including Fundacion Tortugas del Mar, Latin American Sea Turtles, The Turtle Foundation, the Leatherback Project, and Sos Nicaragua.

More information on the app and download links are available here:

Last updated on 05 April 2022

Illegal trade
Eretmochelys imbricata
Species group: