SEE Shell: New mobile app helps protect critically endangered hawksbill turtles

Posted on April, 01 2022

By enabling users to differentiate between real and faux tortoiseshell with 94 per cent accuracy, the A.I powered app enables consumers to avoid buying illegal tortoiseshell and supports law enforcement.
30 March 2022 – A new mobile app aims to prevent the illegal trade of tortoiseshell products made from the shells of critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles. Created by conservation group SEE Turtles and supported by WWF, the app named SEE Shell uses machine learning and image recognition to discern whether or not a product is made from a hawksbill sea turtle’s shell. 
The beautiful shells of hawksbill sea turtles, commonly referred to as “tortoiseshell,” have been used for centuries to create jewelry and ornamental souvenirs in many countries. But in the last century, millions of hawksbill turtles are estimated to have been killed for the tortoiseshell market. With only 15,000 to 25,000 adult female hawksbill turtles estimated in the wild, ending the illegal tortoiseshell trade will play a key role in bringing these animals back from the brink of extinction.
As the first mobile application to use artificial intelligence to combat the illegal wildlife trade, SEE Shell is publicly available for tourists who want to ensure they are not contributing to the killing of hawksbill turtles by identifying and avoiding the purchase of actual tortoiseshell souvenirs. Law enforcement agencies and wildlife officers will also be able to leverage this novel technology to quickly identify products made of actual tortoiseshell.
“One of the major roadblocks to eliminating the illegal tortoiseshell trade is the difficulty in distinguishing real from fake products, whether by a consumer or law enforcement officer,” said Brad Nahill, President of SEE Turtles. “Because telling these products apart can be very difficult, retailers and shoppers often unwittingly contribute to the trade.”
Simply by uploading a photo, this highly accurate app can now discern whether a new 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 percent accuracy. SEE Shell 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 around the globe, a clearer understanding of the size and location of the illegal tortoiseshell trade will emerge. This evidence will help inform where trade enforcement and hawksbill conservation are most needed.
“Thanks to our conservation partners around the world who have contributed tortoiseshell photos, we have created a first in the wildlife trafficking field; an app that can help individual consumers identify and avoid endangered animal products,” said Alexander Robillard, Computer Vision Engineer with SEE Turtles and Predoctoral Fellow Smithsonian OCIO Data Science Lab and National Zoo.
“SEE Shell will not only empower international travelers to do their part in reducing demand for tortoiseshell products, but for the first time, provides law enforcement officials with a tool they can easily use to identify these products for sale in markets, online, and when intercepted or confiscated at border crossings”, said WWF Global Marine Turtle Conservation Lead, Christine Madden Hof.
Weak regulation and enforcement exacerbates the trade in hawksbill turtles – such as in Japan where illegally sourced raw material are found to have filtered into the domestic supply chain.[1] Despite international laws against the sale of tortoiseshell goods, the tortoiseshell trade is active in at least 40 countries, and it remains a primary threat to this species.[2]
Notes to Editor
Details about the app are available on
SEE Turtles’ Too Rare to Wear campaign connects conservation organizations, tourism partners, media outlets, and other sea turtle conservation advocates to end the demand for tortoiseshell products by educating consumers. As part of this 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. Participating organizations include the Turtle Foundation (Indonesia), Fundación Tortugas del Mar (Colombia), Latin American Sea Turtles (Costa Rica), The Leatherback Project (Panama), and Sos Nicaragua.
WWF has partnered with SEE Turtles to finalize the app development, and is providing financial and technical support to advance data collection and documentation and to promote and embed its use with government agencies and online retailers.
1 Read more on Shell Shocked: Japan’s Role in the Illegal Tortoiseshell Trade
2 According to SEE Turtles’ 2020 Global Tortoiseshell Trade report.
Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) laying eggs on a beach above high water
mark. Seychelles. Distribution: Tropical and subtropical oceans worldwide.
Hawksbill turtle
© © Martin Harvey / WWF