This app aims to help save sea turtles by using AI to detect illegal turtle shells


Artificial intelligence can better detect illegal turtle shells, opening a new battlefield in the fight against illegal wildlife trafficking.

(Photo: GREG WOOD/AFP via Getty Images)

Turtle shell has been used to produce everything from jewelry to combs to tableware for generations due to its resilience and a beautiful swirl of translucent layers of amber and brown.

Brad Nahill, co-founder and president of the turtle conservation organization SEE Turtles and a National geographic Explorer says, “It was plastic before plastic was developed because it’s so flexible.”

Turtles do not produce turtle shells. The critically endangered hawksbill turtle is almost entirely responsible. According to records, at least nine million hawksbill turtles were killed and sold for their shells between 1884 and 1992. Fewer than 25,000 breeding females remain today, prohibiting international trade.

Attempt to fight against criminal trafficking

Nahill’s organization is leading an attempt to combat the criminal trafficking of this ancient substance using contemporary technologies. It is difficult to tell the difference between natural tortoiseshell and imitation because it is frequently and precisely reproduced using resin. SEE Turtles collaborated with the Smithsonian OCIO Data Science Lab to create a helper application.

Also read: Baby Galapagos Tortoises Born in Zoo, Hope Shines for Endangered Species

SEE Shell

The The SEE Shell program uses machine learning to determine if a snapshot of something with a tortoiseshell pattern is real or fake with 94% accuracy. According to Alexander Robillard, a predoctoral researcher at the Smithsonian’s Data Science Lab who designed the computer model that runs it, it’s the first smartphone app to use computer vision to combat the illegal wildlife trade, and this will help educate conservation-minded buyers and law enforcement. (The software is available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play.)

Tortoiseshell is still sold on the black market in at least 40 countries, according to Nahill, with the majority of sales taking place in Central America and Southeast Asia. The vast majority of illegal transactions are made by tourists who buy tortoiseshell items from gift shops and souvenir stalls while on vacation.

The app is also useful because of the volume of data it can provide. SEE Turtles can uncover hot spots for illegal sales by uploading all photographs to a confidential, centralized database along with the GPS coordinates of each.

“It’s a great thing even though a few hundred tourists are actively using it, collecting data and avoiding buying real stuff,” Nahill adds. SEE Turtles intends to promote the free app through social media campaigns and collaborations with other conservation groups.

Data gathering

Sea turtle

(Photo: Getty Images)

Although many different groups around the world collect data on the hawksbill trade, marine ecologist Emily Miller, who was not involved in the development of the app but is the author of a 2019 on the Global Hawksbill Trade Scale states that “one of the main hurdles in answering research questions is to consolidate, format and organize all data”, having a centralized database more grande “will be extremely helpful in understanding business patterns on a global scale.”

Robillard collected 4,000 photographs of genuine and fake tortoiseshell products with the help of Nahill’s team. Robillard submitted the images into his computer model, which studied the pixels of each to discover variations in shape and coloring between natural tortoiseshell and the imitation.

According to Nahill, an important distinction is that the pattern on the actual tortoiseshell is random. Stains with consistent edges or the same pattern on many products marketed simultaneously are common in fake products. Plus, the faux tortoiseshell orange hue has consistent translucency throughout.


Nahill and Robillard can tell right from wrong, but a non-expert would need years of effort to master this skill without the software. “I tell people it puts Brad [Nahill] in their pocket!” “The app,” Robillard says. “Any visual activity that a person can do, but faster and faster,” he says of machine learning and computer vision. (I put SEE Shell to the test on two sets of tortoiseshell-patterned glasses, and it immediately recognized them as fake.)

Related article: Illegal wildlife trade: 15 giant tortoises found brutally murdered in the Galapagos Islands

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