Too Rare To Wear Campaign

When Brad Nahill at the non-profit SEE Turtles needed visuals for his new campaign, he turned to Naturalist Studio. Over the course of two years I produced a photo library of sea turtle products, outreach videos for the campaign, educational graphics, and wrote articles about the project online.

The Problem: Endangered Turtle Shell Souvenirs

Hawksbill sea turtles are critically endangered, yet humans continue to hunt them for their beautiful shell. The scales (or ‘scutes’) from the shell are carved into jewelry and other trinkets and then sold in small markets in tropical countries around the world. Tourists unwittingly buy these items, not knowing they are contributing to the extinction of a species.

The Solution: Conservation Photography, Videos, and Graphics

Brad Nahill at the organization SEE Turtles decided to do something about it. That’s when he started the Too Rare To Wear campaign. The campaign’s goal was to educate travelers about how to identify and avoid buying products made from endangered sea turtle shell. I had worked with Brad before as an assignment photographer on his sea turtle conservation tours, so when he needed an undercover photographer/film-maker to head to Nicaragua, he gave me a call.

Brad Nahill drawing a sea turtle in Costa Rica
A bit of fun on assignment with a conservation tour. Brad Nahill of SEE Turtles drawing a turtle with his headlamp on a remote beach in Costa Rica. © Hal Brindley

Brad’s primary needs were photos and videos to use as outreach materials, both to show the extent of the problem and to educate the public on how to recognize souvenirs made from endangered sea turtle shell. But he just couldn’t find them. So we set about creating the first ever database of endangered sea turtle product photos. Some of those images are available for download on the Too Rare to Wear resources page.

Step 1: Studio Photos (Confiscated Goods – US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Our first step was to visit with a law enforcement agent at the US Fish & Wildlife office in Washington DC. He showed us into a locked room full of confiscated illegal goods from wildlife trafficking. To me it was a horror show of shelves piled high with endangered animals slaughtered to make human products. One such collection was sea turtle shell products, primarily confiscated from travelers in airports. As the products weren’t allowed to leave the room, I assembled a make-shift studio with the back of a poster and used the white drop ceiling as my flash diffuser. They came out great!

A taxidermied Hawksbill turtle seized by US Fish & Wildlife law enforcement
sea turtle shell jewelry "tortoiseshell"
Illegal endangered sea turtle shell bracelets seized by US Fish & Wildlife service

Step 2: Undercover Photography & Filming in Nicaragua

Next we had to document the extent of the problem. Brad knew that one of the hotspots for illegal turtle shell souvenirs was Nicaragua. But we had no idea how difficult it might be to photograph and film vendors selling this illegal product. Brad hired me and my wife Cristina to visit four tourist towns in Nicaragua and attempt to film the trade undercover.

I devised several simple ways to film and shoot undercover and off we went. We soon discovered that vendors were very open about selling these illegal products, mainly because the laws were rarely enforced. So, playing the tourist husband and wife, we innocently asked if we could take photos of their shop. Along the way we amassed an incredible library of photos, videos, and interviews with shop owners.

Vendor selling turtle shell jewelry in Managua, Nicaragua © Hal Brindley

Perhaps most astonishing was that, with the help of local sea turtle conservationist in Nicaragua, we managed to film one of the main producers of turtle shell jewelry in Managua. Posing as documentary film makers, I was able to capture the entire process of turning raw hawksbill turtle scutes into jewelry. I edited a video for private use in the conservation industry.

artisan carving tortoiseshell jewelry
Local artisan carving turtle shell jewelry at his home in Managua © Hal Brindley

Step 3: Outreach Videos

With a good deal of material in hand, Brad began his campaign in earnest and soon needed outreach videos to share. He contracted me to produce a series of videos introducing the campaign and teaching people how to identify sea turtle shell products. You can see many of these on the SEE Turtles YouTube Channel. (I branded the productions under Travel For Wildlife, our wildlife travel blog.) This first film was a one-minute introduction to the problem and the campaign.

This 1-minute video introduces the Too Rare to Wear campaign with a somber tone.

Here is a slightly longer edit of the Too Rare to Wear introduction video that is a bit more upbeat.

Then I produced a 3-minute cut explaining the problem and the campaign in greater detail (as well as a French version and a Spanish version.)

A 3-minute film for the Too Rare To Wear campaign.

Next I wrote, filmed, and narrated a film explaining how to identify sea turtle shell products. This one is based on the expertise I developed identifying hundreds of turtleshell pieces in markets across Nicaragua. I also created a Spanish version as this video is primarily targeted toward Central American markets.

How to Identify Turtle Shell Products

Step 4: Graphics and Articles

Under my own initiative I produced a comprehensive article explaining How to Identify Sea Turtleshell Products. I also created a free download and printable graphic that travelers could take with them to help identify and avoid “tortoiseshell” souvenirs. Feel free to download the pdf and use it for yourself if you’re traveling to Central America!

How to identify real tortoiseshell, hawksbill turtle shell
How to identify sea turtle shell products. Illustrations, photos, and layout by Hal Brindley

Into the Future

Too Rare to Wear is going strong with many exciting new initiatives planned. Brad and I are hoping to work together to assist in the creation of an app that will help individuals identify sea turtle shell products using my database of photos. Brad has also started the Divers For Turtles campaign to help divers conserve sea turtles. Stay tuned for more exciting developments and be sure to visit Too Rare to Wear to learn more about helping save the Hawksbill turtle.

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