WWF kickstarts ShellBank - a global genetic database to trace and protect sea turtles from poaching and the illegal trade

Posted on June, 16 2022

On World Sea Turtle Day, WWF calls on governments, research institutions, NGOs and individuals to help protect critically endangered hawksbill turtles by building ShellBank.

16 June 2022Building off the success of a ground-breaking pilot in Australia called ‘Surrender Your Shell’, where over 300 tortoiseshell products were donated to help trace the illegal trade, WWF’s ShellBank is gearing up for uptake across Asia Pacific and globally. 


In just over 150 years, an estimated 9 million hawksbill turtles have been hunted; their shells made into tortoiseshell products such as combs, spectacle frames, earrings and other trinkets and accessories. Despite a global CITES ban since 1977, illegal tortoiseshell trade continues globally, pushing hawksbill and even green sea turtles to the brink of extinction.  


“Surrender Your Shell has demonstrated that DNA testing of large numbers of tortoiseshell products could help authorities to track and dismantle this reprehensible illegal trade. Now is the time to ride this wave of success and roll out ShellBank to more countries where tortoiseshell products are still regrettably being supplied, in transit or for sale in all kinds of marketplaces,” said Christine Madden Hof, WWF’s Global Marine Turtle Conservation Lead.


Each year, thousands of tortoiseshell items are seized on black market trade routes. In most cases there is no way of knowing the original poaching location. This has remained a fatal blindspot for combating the illegal turtle trade. 


However, as all female marine turtles return to their birth region to breed and lay eggs, turtle populations have a genetic signature unique to each nesting region. Extracting DNA from seized items can pinpoint the nesting origin of the turtle killed and enable authorities to crackdown on poaching hotspots - before more sea turtles are taken. 


“ShellBank is a critical global database and toolkit to help advance hawksbill conservation and improve the outcomes of law enforcement efforts against illegal traders. The data bank is continuing to grow and it is anticipated genetic samples from the Asia-Pacific region will triple from seven to at least 20 locations by the end of 2022,” said Dr Michael Jensen, Marine Species Genetics Coordinator for WWF-Australia. But there is much more work to be done to continue to develop this database.


A report on the results of ShellBank's pilot run by Australia titled Surrender Your Shell: Detecting the Origin of Tortoiseshell Products is launched today to share lessons learned and inspire more countries to take part. A next stop for ShellBank to trace tortoiseshell from ‘sale to source’ is the Philippines, where WWF will work with Large Marine Vertebrate Research Institute Philippines (LAMAVE), the University of the Philippines Diliman, together with the support of the Philippine government. This will include building capacity among authorities and researchers on genetic sampling and analysis, to advance knowledge of the turtle products sourced, transiting, or sold at transaction points. 


Despite declining populations, global commitment to protect the hawksbill turtle is encouraging. At the 2019 Convention of Parties to CITES, governments adopted strong decisions to help tackle the illegal trade of sea turtles. More recently, a regional Single Species Action Plan to protect hawksbill turtles was agreed upon by Cambodia, Viet Nam, Myanmar and the Philippines as part of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) - with other range states in Southeast Asia and Western Pacific Ocean pledging their readiness to follow in the near future. 


With the next Convention of Parties to CITES coming up this November, governments now have an opportunity to further fulfill their commitments by leveraging ShellBank. By sharing official tortoiseshell stockpiles and enhancing sample collection of confiscated, nesting, stranded or bycaught turtles to contribute genetic data, authorities will help accelerate global efforts to strengthen monitoring, detection, and law enforcement activities in coastal areas and trade points for this far-ranging species. 

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About ShellBank

WWF established ShellBank to bring together multiple organisations, nations, and communities to work together to collectively develop a global repository for hawksbill mtDNA haplotype (genetic variant) data, supported by a toolkit of operating procedures and training packages to guide its uptake and use across the globe. The aim is for ShellBank to become a vital resource for law enforcement, allowing routine identification of populations most impacted by the illegal turtle trade and which populations targeted by this trade are most at risk and in need of protection. Although initiated for hawksbill turtles and focussed for development in the Asia-Pacific region initially, its scope will extend to all traded marine turtle species and other geographic locations.


About Surrender Your Shell project 

Surrender Your Shell was set up by WWF-Australia to collect a range of tortoiseshell products and enable a trial run of ShellBank. Supported by the Australian government, Australian Museum Research Institute and the Royal Caribbean Group, the results of the ‘Surrender Your Shell’ pilot project are revealed in a new report launched today.


Australians handed in 220 items, wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC donated 101 items, and the Australian government contributed 7 items. Of the items, 57.9% (190) were made from hawksbill turtles, 29.6% (97) were plastic, 0.6% (2) were from tortoise species and surprisingly 11.9% (39) were made from green sea turtles (it was assumed their shell was too thin to be processed into tortoiseshell products).


DNA was extracted from donated products at The Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics (ACWG) at the Australian Museum Research Institute. ACWG is Australia’s only accredited DNA-based wildlife forensic laboratory. The DNA was then checked against ShellBank. Of the 62 hawksbill products successfully sequenced, DNA indicated 3.2% were likely from Japan (foraging area not nesting beaches), 3.2% Caribbean, 8.1% Eastern Malaysia, 11.3% unknown, 24.2% Southwest Pacific, and 50% had genetic variants common across the Indian and Pacific oceans.


For Media Enquiries, please contact:

Jia Ling, Coral Triangle Communications Manager



For enquiries about ShellBank, please write to turtles@wwf.panda.org

Certified wildlife forensic scientist Dr Greta Frankham, Australian Museum Research Institute examining tortoiseshell.
© Abram Powell