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New SEE Shell Mobile Application Uses Machine Learning to Help Tackle the Illegal Tortoiseshell Trade

Conservation nonprofit SEE Turtles has launched an innovative mobile application that will address the illegal trade of hawksbill sea turtle shells. The beautiful shells of this critically endangered species, commonly referred to as “tortoiseshell,” are used to create jewelry and ornamental souvenirs in many countries. The SEE Shell App employs machine learning to differentiate real and faux tortoiseshell products; it is the first mobile application to use artificial intelligence to combat the illegal wildlife trade. This novel technology will enable tourists, law enforcement, and wildlife officials to quickly identify products made of authentic tortoiseshell.

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Despite international laws against the sale of tortoiseshell, this trade is active in at least 40 countries, according to SEE Turtles 2020 “Global Tortoiseshell Trade” report, and it remains the primary threat to hawksbill turtles. With an estimated 15,000 to 25,000 adult female hawksbills remaining in the wild, this groundbreaking mobile application will play a key role in bringing these animals back from the brink of extinction.

SEE Shell will help eliminate this confusion. This highly accurate application can now discern whether an 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% accuracy by simply taking a photo. The mobile application 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 catalog from locations around the globe, a clearer understanding of the size and location of the illegal tortoiseshell trade will emerge.

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“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.

SEE Turtles has also partnered with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, who is providing financial and technical support. As part of SEE Turtles’ “Too Rare to Wear” 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.

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