Hawksbill turtle

Like other marine turtles, hawksbills are threatened by the loss of nesting and feeding habitats, excessive egg collection, fishery-related mortality, pollution and coastal development.
Hawksbill turtle swimming Through a reef rel=
Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) swimming through a reef. Kimbe Bay, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea. 31 May 2010
© Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon

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  • Common Name

    Hawksbill turtle; Tortue caret, Tortue imbriquée, Tortue à bec faucon, Tortue à écailles (Fr); Tortuga carey (Sp)

  • Scientific Name

    Eretmochelys imbricata

  • Status

    IUCN: Critically Endangered A2bd CITES: Appendix I CMS listing: Appendix I and II

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A disturbingly large amount of trade in hawksbills continues

Despite their protection under CITES, as well as under many national laws, there is still a large amount of trade in hawksbills products, and this probably constitutes the major threat to the species.

Hawksbills declined globally by over 80% during the last century.

There are difficulties in accurately assessing population size, but a recent estimate of adult nesting females of 8,000+ has been made. There are only 5 populations worldwide with more than 1,000 females nesting annually. There is evidence that a nesting colony on Milman Island in Queensland, Australia is the largest hawksbill population in the world.

Physical Description

The shell is thin, flexible and highly coloured with elaborate patterns. The carapace of the hawksbill is unusual amongst the marine turtles as the scutes (the hard, bony plates that constitute the shell) are overlapping. These are often streaked and marbled with amber, yellow or brown, most evident when the shell material is worked and polished. As the English name suggests, the hawksbill has a narrow pointed beak reminiscent of a bird of prey.

In the past, the hawksbill was thought be less migratory than the other species of marine turtles. However, more recent work involving satellite telemetry has revealed that the species does make long distance migrations.

Size

Usually less than 1m in length, weighing 40-60kg.

Colour

The scutes  are often streaked and marbled with amber, yellow or brown.

Breeding

Nesting occurs widely throughout the range, but tends to be more dispersed than in other species. There are seldom more than a few hundred nests on a single beach, and few major colonial nesting beaches. It has been suggested that this is simply a result of centuries of over-exploitation.

The hawksbill appears to nest every 2 to 3 years and lays 60 to 200 eggs at a time. The hawksbill often nests close to coral reefs, and can be encountered by snorkellers and scuba-divers at localities where turtle habitat is in good condition.

Diet

Hawksbill turtles are mainly carnivorous and use their narrow beaks to extract invertebrate prey from crevices on the reef. Both sessile and mobile animals are eaten and hawksbills appear to be opportunistic predators, although sponges normally constitute a major proportion of their diet.

 / ©: Chris R. Shepherd/TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.
Bangles made from Hawksbill Turtle scutes for sale in a shop in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
© Chris R. Shepherd/TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

Habitat and ecology

Ecological Region
Benguela Current, Humboldt Current, Agulhas Current, Gulf of California, Galápagos Marine, Canary Current, Sulu-Sulawesi Seas, Bismarck-Solomon Seas, Banda-Flores Sea, Palau Marine, Andaman Sea, Arabian Sea, East African Marine, West Madagascar Marine, Mesoamerican Caribbean Reef, Greater Antillean Marine, Southern Caribbean Sea, Northeast Brazil Shelf Marine.

Nesting Area
SWOT map of nesting beaches


Hawksbill turtles live on coral reefs where their favourite food, sponges, are most plentiful. Fiji. / ©: WWF-Canon / Cat HOLLOWAY
Hawksbill turtles live on coral reefs where their favourite food, sponges, are most plentiful. Fiji.
© WWF-Canon / Cat HOLLOWAY

What are the main threats?

The main threats which affect marine turtles are:
  • Habitat loss and degradation
  • Wildlife trade
  • Collection of eggs and meat for consumption
  • Incidental capture (bycatch)
  • Climate change
  • Pollution
Hawksbill turtles are particulary threatened by wildlife trade. They are much sought after throughout the tropics for their beautiful brown and yellow carapace plates that are manufactured into tortoiseshell items ("carey" or "bekko") for jewellery and ornaments. In recent decades, eastern Asia has provided an eager market for tortoiseshell. Despite their current protection under CITES and many national laws, there is still a disturbingly large amount of illegal trade in hawksbill shells and products.

Juvenile hawksbills, and other marine turtles, are often collected and stuffed for sale as tourist curios. Although many countries have banned this trade, it still occurs. Stuffed hawksbills were openly on sale at Hanoi's international airport in 1998. Harvest for domestic trade still occurs in many countries of the Caribbean, South-East Asia and Polynesia.
Hawksbill turtle is a priority species. WWF treats priority species as one of the most ecologically, economically and/or culturally important species on our planet. And so we are working to ensure such species can live and thrive in their natural habitats.

Why is this species important?

Marine turtles fulfill important roles in marine ecosystems
Hawksbill turtles also feed on invertebrates, with a predilection for sponges. When they dislodge pieces from the surface of the coral, this provides access for reef fish to feed.

What is WWF doing?

WWF works to protect marine turtles throughout the world through specialist programmes and regional projects devoted to the conservation of marine turtles.

This includes:
  • Action to address the impacts of climate change
  • Monitoring the migration patterns of marine turtles
  • Improving and supporting trade controls
  • Protecting nesting sites
  • Reducing bycatch and promoting smart fishing

Examples specifically linked to the conservation of hawksbill turtles include:
 / ©: Adrian Reuter / TRAFFIC North America
A 2006 survey carried out by TRAFFIC found more than 23,000 items made from hawksbill turtles for sale. A February revisit of the same locations revealed a dramatic reduction with only 135 shell items.
© Adrian Reuter / TRAFFIC North America
Hawksbill turtle (<i>Eretmochelys imbricata</i>). The metabolism, life cycle, and ... / ©: WWF-Canon /  Martin HARVEY
Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). The metabolism, life cycle, and behaviour of many marine species could be affected by climate change.
© WWF-Canon / Martin HARVEY

How you can help

  • Send a turtle to rehab! Help the recuperation process for thousands of sick and injured turtles.
  • Check what that souvenir is made from! Don't buy products which have been made from sea turtle parts. Guitars, ashtrays, jewellry and other products made from sea turtles are sold to tourists around the world.

Make a donation

Did you know?

    • The hawksbill turtle is the sole source of commercial tortoiseshell.
    • Between 1970 and 1992, Japan imported about 33 tonnes of hawksbill shell per year, a total equivalent to the deaths of 31,000 turtles annually.

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