Sea Turtles: Food, Money or Friend? The importance of sea turtle conservation in Palau

The harvest of sea turtles has long been a part of the Palauan culture. Sea turtles have been harvested for both food and a form of women’s money in Palau and are the focus of a number of local management initiatives. Indeed, turtle conservation has received the attention of government leaders, NGOs, traditional leaders and women’s groups alike. Conservation has been- and still is- important for cultural preservation in Palau.

Palauan women have played a particularly important role in the conservation of the hawksbill turtle. As mentioned the hawksbill shell is used for a form of money, toluk, which is primarily used by women. . To make toluk, sections of the turtle shell are formed into shallow “dishes”, sanded down, and the sides are carved. They are given away to women (or men to later give to a woman) for occasions like a marriage, a birth, or a death in the family. United States dollars are put in the shell, however, it is not the money that is sought after, it is the shell itself.  Many of the shells are passed between clans and families and there is no clear record of how many are currently in circulation.

It was the women in the community who initiated a national bill that put a moratorium on the harvest of hawksbill turtles.  Women found that toluk was getting smaller and smaller and believed that these turtles needed to be more aggressively protected.

We were fortunate to meet some of the women involved in the creation of the national law that put a 5-year moratorium on the harvesting of the hawksbill. Our class met with Senator Kathy Kesolei, Hermana Ramarua, Nancy Wong and Dilmei Olkeriil. They explained the impetus for the law that came, not from modern scientific research, but from the concern many women had in the shrinking sizes of toluk. As a former student of women’s studies, and in particular women’s relationship with the environment, I found this connection between a gendered cultural practice and the importance of a particular species to be a quintessential case in exemplifying the important role women play both in detecting environmental problems and in environmental conservation.

Palauan women’s concern for the hawksbill turtle arose through the nation’s yearly women’s conferences. Every March for the past 20 years, traditional women leaders in the 16 states of Palau convene to discuss women’s issues; in particular, environmental problems, health, education, and cultural preservation. They invite members of the government or whomever they feel can help push forward their project. This group of women is an important part of the complex system of networks that makes for more successful management and conservation of marine resources. Risien and Tilt (2008) review a sea turtle conservation effort on Palau’s Helen Reef. They find that having networks in place and adapting to local/ regional grievances and capabilities is important for successful management. The moratorium on harvesting the hawksbill sea turtle was passed in 2010 but the law did not formalize any monitoring system. The women involved in putting the law together are concerned with the lack of monitoring and are reaching out to researchers to track the hawksbill to see if the moratorium has aided in the recovery. NGOs can be key in reaching local communities and filling in the gaps and missing links that come from management at different governance levels. In Palau, the Palau Conservation Society fulfills this role and is able to direct funding and resources to designated projects and outreach across communities.

Sea turtle conservation on Helen’s Reef, in Palau, is managed by the Helen Reef Management Board. Wayne Andrew, a member of this board gave a presentation focusing on the importance of capacity building and enforcement that has led to successful sea turtle conservation on Helen Reef.

The board is also dedicated to reaching out to different networks and bringing governments and NGO’s together. Sea turtles are migratory and management will only work if more than one community in Palau, more than one nation in Micronesia, is involved. Building partnerships and networks between governance levels in villages, states and nations is therefore imperative to the conservation of sea turtles a. Education is also  an important element of this and the phrase A Uel A Sechelid “Turtles are our friends” has become the motto of many school children throughout Palau.

Our day ended with a surprise twist. Senator Kesolei brought us to meet Bilung Gloria G Salii, a high ranking traditional leader. She had contributed to a book on the effects of climate change to Palauan environment and culture, and shared with us some stories and understanding of the effects of climate change. It was both an honor and privilege to be welcomed into her home. There, we saw the Bilung’s beautiful collection of toluk and other Palauan artwork and antiquities. Much of Bilung’s pieces held cultural meaning and importance and she took the time to share with us their stories.  Senator Kesolei and the Queen sat with us and gave first-hand accounts of the use and stories behind toluk in Palau.


Risien, Julie M., and Bryan Tilt. “A comparative study of community-based sea turtle management in Palau: Key factors for successful implementation.” Conservation and Society 6.3 (2008): 225.