DNA Database Reveals New Marine Turtle Populations and Could Help Unmask Trafficking Hotspots

Posted on June, 16 2024

ShellBank - the world’s first marine turtle traceability toolkit and database - is now open-access and calls for data contribution to help protect endangered marine turtles
16 June 2024 - On World Sea Turtle Day, a vast data repository has been made publicly available for researchers, conservationists and law enforcement agencies to track, trace and better protect marine turtles globally. More than 13,000 samples from over 50 countries have been added to ShellBank, enabling law enforcement and researchers to better identify and understand marine turtle trafficking hotspots.

Over the last 30 years, at least 1.1 million marine turtles (not including shell products and eggs) have been illegally exploited in 65 countries. Of these, at least 22% were likely traded internationally. Additionally, more than 85,000 turtles are caught as incidental bycatch worldwide from 1990 - 2008. Despite a global trade ban by CITES since 1977 and various policies aimed at reducing bycatch, the unsustainable capture and illegal trade of turtles, their eggs, meat, and parts have persisted. Alarmingly, these activities are reemerging on black markets.

“Until now, the lack of precise data on targeted turtle populations has hindered conservation and law enforcement efforts. ShellBank addresses this gap by extracting DNA to trace and track turtle origins.This database is the most precise and current tool conservationists and law enforcement have to develop a targeted protection plan for sea turtle populations,” said Dr Christine Madden, WWF’s Global Marine Turtle Lead and co-founder of ShellBank.

Just last month, over 100 tortoiseshell items in Hong Kong’s seizure stockpile were sampled and analyzed by researchers from the University of Hong Kong, in collaboration with the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and ShellBank.

“The donation of these items to ShellBank marks a significant stride in Hong Kong’s ongoing efforts to analyze the illegal wildlife trade and strengthen wildlife conservation through scientific methods. By providing samples for DNA extraction and contributing seizure-related data to ShellBank, we aim to support law enforcement agencies in different parts of the world in acquiring valuable insights into the specific populations targeted by the illegal tortoiseshell trade. This collaboration will greatly assist in enhancing global law enforcement efforts,” said a spokesperson for ACFD.

Marine turtles return to the same nesting beach year after year to lay their eggs. Over millions of years, this has created genetically distinct turtle populations. By extracting DNA from any turtle, turtle part or product, like the items donated by the government of Hong Kong, and running it through the ShellBank database, conservationists can now pinpoint which populations are most at risk, and make precise and targeted efforts to protect them.

For the first time in the Coral Triangle, local researchers and citizen scientists in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia have mapped seven previously unknown, genetically distinct populations of hawksbill turtles. In Indonesia’s Java Sea, a study revealed multiple unique genetic variations across just six closely situated nesting sites, surprising scientists with the diversity found in such a small area. Supported by ShellBank, their groundbreaking work now contributes critical data to the ShellBank database. This data enhances our understanding of specific marine turtle populations, detailing where they forage, nest, and migrate, and whether neighbouring populations interact with each other.

“The more ShellBank grows as a database, the more we can connect the dots. This information is crucial for alerting authorities to where turtles are being sourced and most rampantly taken. We hope that using ShellBank can be a turning point in saving this species,” said Dr Greta Frankham, a certified wildlife forensic scientist at the Australian Museum Research Institute and a core member of the ShellBank team.

You can reach out to ShellBank if you have marine turtle data to contribute or if you'd like to support us at www.shellbankproject.org.

--- End ----

Notes to Editors

About ShellBank
ShellBank is led by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in partnership with the Australian Museum - Australian Centre for Wildlife Genomics, NOAA - Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and TRACE Wildlife Forensics Network. By bringing together multiple organisations, countries and communities to develop a global repository for marine turtle DNA, ShellBank provides a toolkit of operating procedures, capacity building and training packages to guide its uptake and use across the globe, along with advancing scientific development. Shellbank aims to become a vital resource for law enforcement and conservation research. By allowing routine identification of populations most impacted by threats - such as the illegal turtle trade and bycatch - ShellBank can help identify turtle populations that are most at risk and in need of protection. For more information, please visit www.shellbankproject.org or write to shellbank@wwfint.org.

About WWF
WWF is an independent conservation organization, with over 30 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF's mission is to stop the degradation of the Earth's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world's biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. Visit www.panda.org/news for the latest news and media resources, and follow us on Twitter @WWF_media.

For media enquiries, contact:
Lim Jia Ling
jllim@wwf.sg | +65 92980961

Irene Serrano (for U.S. media requests)
irene.serrano@wwfus.org | +1 (202) 352-0744
Dr Greta Frankham, a certified wildlife forensic scientist at the Australian Museum Research Institute, drills into a tortoiseshell sample to extract genetic material for analysis; DNA data when entered into ShellBank could help trace where this turtle was taken from.
© Greta Frankham / Australian Museum
Tracey Leigh-Prigge from the University of Hong Kong is drilling into a tortoiseshell bangle to extract genetic material for DNA sampling, where data can be input into the global marine turtle database ShellBank
Over 100 DNA samples from seized tortoiseshell products were extracted for ShellBank in collaboration with University of Hong Kong.
© Greta Frankham / Australian Museum
Demand for tortoiseshell - often used for making accessories - has driven hawksbill turtles to the brink of extinction. Recently green turtles have been found to be targeted for tortoiseshell too.
© Greta Frankham / Australian Museum