New App Can Help End Illegal ‘Tortoiseshell’ Material Trade

A hawksbill sea turtle
A hawksbill sea turtle. B.navez / CC BY-SA 3.0

Sea turtles face many threats, from ocean plastic pollution to the climate crisis. However, the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle faces a unique danger: Its spangled shell is highly desirable to create the falsely-named “tortoiseshell” material popular for trinkets and jewelry. 

While selling real tortoiseshell is now illegal, the practice sadly persists. To fight back, scientists have developed the first-ever app that uses artificial intelligence as a tool against the illegal wildlife trade. Tourists and shoppers can use SEE Shell to determine whether or not a “tortoiseshell” souvenir is genuine. 

“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,” SEE Turtles President Brad Nahill said in a WWF press release. “Because telling these products apart can be very difficult, retailers and shoppers often unwittingly contribute to the trade.”

Millions of hawksbill turtles have been killed for tortoiseshell markets in the U.S., Europe and Asia in the last century, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List. The material has long been prized for its beautiful amber and brown swirls and its long-lasting quality, according to National Geographic. 

“It was plastic before plastic was invented because it’s so malleable,” Nahill told National Geographic. 

The turtles have paid a steep price for the material’s desirability, however, and there are now fewer than 25,000 breeding females left alive. Today, a black market in tortoiseshell continues in at least 40 countries, mostly in Central America and Southeast Asia. Most commonly, tortoiseshell is sold to unwitting tourists in gift shops. Because it is easily copied using resin, it’s hard for a non-expert viewer to tell real from fake tortoiseshell. 

That’s where the new app comes in. Nahill worked with Alexander Robillard, a predoctoral fellow with the Smithsonian’s Data Science Lab, to use machine learning to train a computer model on 4,000 images of real and fake tortoiseshell. The computer learned to distinguish between the images with a 94 percent accuracy rate. Real tortoiseshell has entirely random patterns, while the orange in fake tortoiseshell has a uniform translucency.

“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,” Robillard told WWF. 

The SEE Shell app will alert you immediately if a product you photograph is made from real tortoiseshell, the website explains. To get the best results, make sure the image is focused and centered, only photograph one item or type of item at a time, don’t take the photo too close to the item and avoid glare. 

The website says that tourists shouldn’t alert law enforcement themselves if they come across genuine items and should prioritize their own safety when using the app. Instead, the app makers will coordinate with law enforcement themselves when possible. 

The app is useful to help reduce demand for illegal items, but also to collect and gather data about the trade. The app makers have already discovered new tortoiseshell products they weren’t aware of before, like cocktail-mixing swizzle sticks and cock-fighting spurs, according to National Geographic. 

It’s also possible that a similar approach could be used to identify other frequently-trafficked wildlife items, like bone or elephant ivory. 

“[T]here’s a whole world of possibilities for applying machine learning to conservation issues,” Robillard told National Geographic.

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