Science

Illegal Trafficking & Slaughter of Sea Turtles: Over 1.1 Million in 10 Years

It is estimated that more than 1.1 million sea turtles have been illegally killed and, in some cases, trafficked between 1990 and 2020.

The East Pacific hawksbill turtle is among the most endangered sea turtle populations and one of the oldest creatures on Earth. In a new ASU study spanning a 30-year period, 95% of poached sea turtles came from two species — green and hawksbill turtles — both of which are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Also, Southeast Asia and Madagascar emerged as major hotspots for illegal sea turtle take and trade, particularly for critically endangered hawksbills, which are prized in the illicit wildlife trade for their beautiful shells. Image Credit: Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock

Even with existing laws prohibiting their capture and use, as many as 44,000 sea turtles were exploited each year over the past decade in 65 countries or territories and in 44 of the world’s 58 major sea turtle populations.

Although these numbers are shocking there has been a slight decline of the illegal trafficking of sea turtles of 28% over that same 10 year period.

Researchers from Arizona State University who have been studying the illegal capturing and selling of sea turtles reviewed data from peer-reviewed journal articles, archived media reports, NGO reports, and online questionnaires to determine a comprehensive look at existing information on exploited sea turtles.

ASU assistant research professor and marine biologist Jesse Senko holds a recently captured green turtle at one of his study sites in Baja California Sur, Mexico. The turtle was released unharmed. Image credit:

Vietnam was the most common country of origin for illegal sea turtle trafficking, while China and Japan served as destinations for nearly all trafficked sea turtle products. Vietnam to China was the most common trade route across all three decades.  

Across the 30-year study period, 95% of poached sea turtles came from two species — green and hawksbill turtles — both of which are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Also, Southeast Asia and Madagascar emerged as major hotspots for illegal sea turtle take and trade, particularly for critically endangered hawksbills, which are prized in the illicit wildlife trade for their beautiful shells.

Researcher Kayla Burgher explained:

“Our assessment is an important foundation for future research and outreach efforts regarding illegal sea turtle exploitation. We believe this study can help conservation practitioners and legislators prioritize conservation efforts and allocate their resources to best help protect sea turtle populations from harmful levels of exploitation worldwide.”

The research team says much more needs to be done to sustain global biodiversity.

Global maps from the ASU study in Global Change Biology show the magnitude of illegal exploitation by country during the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. Data from documented literature are shown by colored countries, while data from the in-country expert online questionnaire are shown with the diamond symbols. Image credit: Arizona State University

The study has been published in Global Change Biology.: Global patterns of illegal marine turtle exploitation