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The trade in tortoise-derived souvenir products in Morocco.

A. C. Highfield & J. R. Bayley


For many years a major source of live tortoises for the European pet market, Morocco ratified CITES in 1978 and ceased bulk exports of Testudo graeca graeca L. 1758. Some limited trade to non-EC countries has, however, continued with exports of live tortoises originating in Morocco reported to CITES numbering some 2,000 in 1986 and 10,004 in 1987 (World Conservation Monitoring Committee, 1993). Exports peaked during the 1950's and 1960's when several million tortoises were extracted from the region. Today T. g. graeca is listed on CITES Appendix II but within the EC regulation 3626/82 places stricter controls on trade, comparable to those required for Appendix 1 taxa.
Legislation within Morocco does not currently prohibit the internal sale of T. graeca or its derivatives, although export of the species was prohibited in 1978. However, changes in Moroccan law are expected in the future as a result of the recent creation of a Ministry of the Environment. The Ministry consulted zoologists at l'Universite Cadi Ayyad in Marrakech during the consultation proceess in preparation for this proposed legislation; Testudo graeca graeca was placed at the head of the list of fauna submitted to the government which was considered to urgently require legal protection (Slimani, pers. comm.).
Morocco's biological resources generally are reported to be suffering from serious degradation despite the designation of wildlife reserves (Duvall, 1988). New reserves specifically for T. graeca are also now under consideration (Slimani, pers. comm.)
Investigations by the authors over as period of 5 years reveal that Testudo graeca graeca is currently threatened by collecting for household pets and 'medicinal' use in Morocco, for manufacture of tourist souvenirs and by habitat losses resulting from human population growth and climatic change which have promoted desertification, urbanisation and the intensification of agriculture. This paper focuses on the problems of and potential solutions to the trade in tortoise-derived souvenirs.

Materials and methods

No official trade statistics on the utilisation of reptiles for souvenirs are maintained by the Moroccan authorities and few (if any) traders maintain independent records. The assessment of trade volume is therefore exceptionally difficult and can only be achieved by estimation based upon direct observation. At any one time considerably more than 1,000 tortoise-derived souvenirs may be on display in retail outlets at major tourist centres throughout the country but ascertaining turnover levels is problematic. However, some estimated figures based upon close monitoring of specific outlets are presented here. The assessment of tourist and tour operator attitudes was conducted primarily by questionnaire and interview. Tourist interviews were conducted over a period of two weeks in the coastal resort of Agadir which was selected because of its importance as a major tourist destination and the frequency of outlets offering tortoise-derived souvenir objects.

Historical context

Lambert (1969) quotes figures of more than 300,000 tortoises being exported from Morocco alone to Britain each year for pets in the period after the Second World War; similarly enormous quantities of tortoises were extracted from Algeria, with additional large numbers being taken from Tunisia and Libya. Not only Britain received these shipments; there was a persistent demand for North African tortoises throughout Europe.
Lambert (1976) noted that since the U.K. Animals (Restriction of Import) Act, 1964 required records of numbers imported to be kept for the first time, 2,023,580 Mediterranean spur-thighed tortoises were imported into the U.K., with 68.5% originating in Morocco.

The effects of former trade

Such persistent and massive extractions of potential breeding stock from the wild has obviously had extremely detrimental effects upon natural populations; it is now widely accepted that the harvest of animals which suffer high levels of juvenile mortality and which do not reach sexual maturity for many years cannot be sustainably achieved (Congdon, Dunham & van Loben Sels, 1993).

Precise data on the cumulative effects of the bulk collecting era is not available as the trade was never properly monitored and in most areas no surveys, either before or after trade collecting, have been carried out. Anecdotal evidence from reliable local sources, however, suggests that in many areas where once tortoises were "very common" they are now rarely sighted. Lambert (1979) suggests the net effect of collecting Testudo g. graeca in Morocco may have reduced pre-trade population levels by as much as 86%.

The current status of wild populations

The continuing effects of habitat loss through development and environmental degradation must be also be considered in addition to direct drains upon the population as a result of collecting; these effects are extremely severe, particularly in the south of the country where desertification is a widespread problem. The combined effects of this and trade collection could especially endanger tortoises in this semi-arid region (Lambert, 1980). Today, in areas where local residents confirm that once many tens of tortoises could be observed in a few hours, one is today fortunate to encounter the same number in a week of intensive searching. The former high density population of the region is also verified by trade collection data (Lambert, 1983).
Field data collected during 1994 and 1995 (Bayley & Highfield, in press) indicates that the population of animals observed in the lower Souss valley near Agadir is not sustainable; the age sex structure illustrated in Fig 1 shows a marked predominance of males and a notably small percentage of juveniles. Whilst some allowance must be made for the effects of varying rates of activity between animals of different age and sex and for the effect of juveniles being more difficult to detect, these factors fail to account for such a striking pattern. For example, during a survey of a habitat devoid of sites where juveniles could effectively conceal themselves, out of 17 individuals located, only 2 (11.76%) were under 15 years of age which indicates a low level of juvenile survivorship and suggests a non-sustainable recruitment pattern (Lambert, 1980).
Insofar as could be reliably ascertained, this particular region is not currently subject to collecting, although it was a collecting area in the past (Lambert, 1983). It is reasonable to conclude that the current population structure has also been adversely affected by the severe environmental degradation this area has suffered as a result of the collection of wood, overgrazing and cultivation resulting in deforestation and soil erosion both of which result in a serious reduction in availability of plant fodder which forms the natural diet of T. graeca. The acute loss of the endemic argan tree in this region is a major factor in the loss of wild fodder plants as the forest canopy provided shade and permitted seedlings to survive.

The tortoise trade today in Morocco

Unlike the tortoise exploitation situation in Tunisia (Highfield, 1990), few tortoises are offered for sale to tourists as living animals in Morocco. Exploitation appears to be concentrated instead upon tourist souvenirs made from the attractively marked carapaces of T. g. graeca. From observations made over 5 years by the authors, it is possible to determine that two specific souvenir objects constitute 100% of this trade:

  • Decorative fire-bellows using either one or two carapaces each
  • Decorative banjo-like musical instruments, each using a single carapace as the resonator
The above objects are on sale in virtually every major tourist resort visited in Morocco, typically at marked prices of between 75-200 Dirhams (approximately £5.35/$8.50-£14.25/$22.50). The actual price paid is normally reduced by negotiation to approximately 60% of these figures.
Female carapaces are preferentially collected because their larger size makes more desirable souvenir items; the ratio of male to female specimens observed in retail outlets was 1:2.7 ; in this context it is vital to note that even a drain of equal numbers of males and females would pose a threat to the sustainablity of the population (Congdon, Dunham & van Loben Sels, 1993). The effects of removing more females than males greatly amplify these detrimental effects upon population viability and recruitment.

Tortoise banjos for sale in a Moroccan shop.

It should be stressed that although the fire bellows are fully functional, the banjo-like instruments are of very poor quality and serve a purely decorative function. Local people report that banjos made from carapaces are not a traditional item; indeed in some outlets similar instruments made from gourds or ceramics are offered for sale.
The use of carapaces for these products stems from the pre-1978 era of extensive trade collection when they became a commercial by-product in order to make use of animals that had perished during storage or transport (Lambert, 1980). The collection and killing of tortoises specifically to supply the 'souvenir' market is therefore a relatively recent phenomenon.

Retail outlets

The tortoise-derived products were observed only in tourist souvenir outlets and trade seems to be sustained entirely by tourists; further evidence is presented below under volume of trade.
The resort of Agadir was selected because of its importance as a tourist destination; it is the only major coastal resort in the south and accounted for 36.3% of the tourist trade in 1993 (Banque Marocain du Commerce Exterieur). In December 1994 and April 1995 a comprehensive survey of the retail outlets in this resort was undertaken; each outlet was visited on at least two occasions in order to ascertain the age, sex and species of the carapaces utilised, whether credit card facilities were available and how many items were on display. Traders were also interviewed where possible.
When questioned, some traders were prepared to admit that the export was illegal, however most denied that there was any prohibition on export.
It should be noted that the information proffered by traders in response to questions about the origins, number and legality of the trade was typically contradictory and unreliable. A high degree of imagination and originality was evident in the stories and excuses offered. In one incident, investigators posing as tourists were informed that the dozens of T. graeca carapaces on display were all "turtles which had drowned in a flood".
One of the staff at a major outlet in Agadir - a fixed price supermarket catering for tourists - was prepared to talk honestly about the origins of the items on display, however. He disclosed that one major collection site is the region between Tiznit and Agadir. From there, the tortoises are transported to the Marrakech region for processing. This information is corroborated by the coloration of many of the specimens on sale at this outlet: 50% were of an overall yellow colour quite different to those specimens observed in the field in the nearby Souss valley by the authors and were instead identical to those observed in the field in the vicinity of Tiznit. The Tiznit region, being some 90 kilometres further south towards the margin of the Sahara, is considerably more arid and, as a result of environmental degradation, is also poorer agriculturally than the Agadir region. It is possible that a lack of alternative income has encouraged local entrepreneurs to make use of this wildlife resource.

Volume of trade

Initial attempts to ascertain the level of trade by questioning traders were abandoned for the reasons stated above in favour of the following methods. The number of specimens on display was assumed to broadly correlate with the volume of trade.
Observations on the number of tortoise-derived souvenirs recorded by the authors in a random survey of retail outlets throughout Morocco. An index of frequency was calculated based on the time spent browsing in shops in order to observe the souvenirs; this wass recorded as the number observed per hour. The pattern of results was interesting; the highest rates were observed in the coastal resorts, with lower rates in the old inland cities visited by tourists and the lowest in the capital city . Anecdotal evidence from other travellers and earlier expedition reports (Raxworthy, Rice, Smith and Claudius, 1983) suggest that this frequency is typical throughout the year and is mirrored in other major tourist locations not visited.

Due to the lack of regulation, official trade statistics and the typically anarchic business practices of most traders, genuinely reliable figures of animals involved are practically impossible to compile. However, the French tortoise conservation organisation SOPTOM have estimated the number of T. graeca utilised annually for the souvenir trade as no less than 10,000 individuals (Devaux, pers. com.). If accurate, this figure more than meets the criteria for "significant" trade as accepted by the World Conservation Monitoring Committee (1993).
Raxworthy, (1983) in their report on the herpetofauna of the Cap Rhir region followng a month-long expedition stated:

"The scale of production for tortoise banjos was clearly quite substantial. Most souvenir shops would have on display between 10 and 20 of these items and may have more in stock. In Agadir, Marrakech and Tangier there were a very large number of shops selling these banjos. By some rough calculations the number of banjos seen on the expedition was about 1,500".

These observations accord closely with the present author's experience and suggest that the scale of this trade has not diminished in the intervening 12 years and tend to support the total estimate of trade as proposed by SOPTOM.
Obtaining definitive data on turnover throughout the country proved impossible. However, an attempt was made to estimate this by carefully monitoring one specific outlet in a prime tourist location. In December 1994, 14 carapaces were on display. These were examined and photographed in situ and details of their age and sex was recorded. A reliable identification of each individual item was therefore possible. The same outlet was then visited again in March 1995 and the stock at this time compared with that noted in December. In 13 weeks 5 out of the original 14 carapaces had been sold (and replaced by fresh stock) which represented a minimum quarterly turnover of 37.5%. Given that this particular period was not during the peak tourist season a conservative estimate of turnover for this outlet is 37.5% X 4 or approximately 150% per annum. Given the very considerable numbers of carapaces noted by Raxworthy et. al (1983) during a visit of just one month's duration these figures indicate an alarmingly high level of exploitation.
Reports from the Marrakech region (Slimani, pers. comm.) also reveal that a number of workshops are exclusively occupied in the production of these items which further confirms a high level of trade. Again, even local investigators have been unable to compile reliable statistics on the numbers of animals involved save to comment that the level of activity is "substantial" The same individuals involved in the manufacture of tortoise-derived souvenirs are frequently also involved in the production of other reptile-derived souvenirs targeted at the tourist market such as stuffed snakes and lizards.

Exploitation of other chelonian species

In previous visits to the region a limited number of fire bellows manufactured using the carapaces of the terrapin Mauremys leprosa (Schweigger, 1812) were recorded. These are easily distinguished from T. g. graeca, being dull brown in colour with a low-vaulted oval carapace featuring a medial keel and lacking entirely the attractive markings of graeca.In addition, these animals would be much more difficult to catch in the wild, often being located in water bounded by reed beds. The utilisation of M. leprosa is estimated to comprise not more than 5% of the net trade in testudine-derived souvenirs.

Tour operator attitudes

A letter giving details of the illegal trade and including photographs of the souvenirs of concern was dispatched to all British tour companies who could be identified as involved in operations in Morocco.
A follow-up questionnaire was also sent 6 months later to these same operators. Only 10 (17.5%) of the 57 tour operators approached replied; of these, 60% had taken action to inform their clients or their leaders of the trade when the follow-up questionnaire was distributed. The highest response rate came from small special interest operators (21%) whereas only 8% of the larger operators replied.
Both of the larger operators (Inspirations and Abercrombie & Kent) who responded had, as a direct result of our approach, included a paragraph in their brochures alerting their clients to the trade, whilst the specialist operators had responded in a variety of ways; two had sent detailed information to their group leaders, one had placed an advisory note in ticket wallets and one had both sent information to their group leaders and printed information in their brochure. Two respondents had chosen to remain anonymous, one of whom had taken no action. Of those that had taken no action, two felt that they were already taking the necessary action and Forte Hotels felt that it was not appropriate to their business clientele.
60% of the respondents stated that they were interested in developing the ecotourism sector of the market, whilst a further 20% were possibly interested in developing this sector. Tourist attitudes were then examined to determine whether there was any correlation between the attitudes of tour operators and their clientele.

Tourist attitudes

A total of 64 tourists (comprised of English, French and German nationals) visiting the Southern coastal resort of Agadir were interviewed over a 14 day period. In order to ensure as honest a response as possible, the questionnaire was carefully designed to ensure reliable responses; as many respondents as possible were selected from visitors that we had come to know and trust over the fortnight we stayed in Agadir.

The results of this survey are summarised in Table 2. It is significant that 92.2% of those questioned stated that they would not knowingly purchase a product manufactured from any endangered species. It is also significant that, although 53.1% were aware of legal restrictions on such species, a disturbingly high proportion (46.9%) were not aware of any such regulations. Airport displays were cited by only 7.8% of informed tourists as their source of knowledge on these legal restrictions, whilst a further 6.3% quoted their tour operator as their source of information.
A very significant finding was that 68.7% of tourists would positively welcome more information from tour operators and travel agents on endangered wildlife issues and regulations prior to travelling. Only 4.7% expressed opposition to this idea.


The souvenir trade in T. g. graeca carapaces is significant in terms of the further damage that it is doing to an already severely depleted population and is presently uncontrolled within Morocco. Visitors from overseas represent the primary market for these products which are on prominent sale in practically every major tourist center in the country. Given the already depressed condition of T. g. graeca populations in Morocco and the species' relatively low reproductive potential, this trade must be regarded as a very serious threat to wild populations (female T. g. graeca do not attain sexual maturity until 12-15 years of age).
An encouraging aspect highlighted by the present research is the very high percentage of tourists who would not knowingly purchase endangered species products and who would welcome more information on this subject prior to travelling. It is doubly disappointing in this context to note the apathetic response of the vast majority of tour operators to the problem. This is clearly an area which demands concerted attention on the part of all those seeking to bring about a reduction in demand for endangered species souvenirs. Raxworthy et. al. (1983) in their herpetofaunal survey of the Cap Rhir region were sufficiently concerned at the volume and impacts of this trade to call for the immediate control of all trade in tortoise shell banjos. The present authors fully endorse this concern and similarly call for action to terminate the trade. Tourist education, the introduction of laws protecting T. graeca within Morocco and the encouragement of traders to stock banjos and bellows manufactured from alternative materials such as gourds and ceramics are all areas to which attention should be directed.


The authors wish to thank Karen Guess and Jenni King for their help with tourist and travel operator questionnaires and general field assistance in Morocco and Dr. T. Slimani of the Université Cadi Ayyad, Marrakech, for invaluable information.


Banque Marocain du Commerce Extérieur. (Morocco in Figures.1993)

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