The Case of the Green Turtle: An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon by Alison Rieser (review)
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The Case of the Green Turtle: An Uncensored History of a Conservation Icon. Alison Rieser. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. xii and 338 pp., map, photos, notes, bibliog., index., $23.50 (ISBN 1-4214-0579-2).

The green turtle – Chelonia mydas – has been classified as endangered on IUCN’s Red List of endangered and threatened wild species of plants and animals since the late 1960s. Over the last three generations, the global population has declined by more than 60 percent and the turtle faces a considerable risk of extinction. It is difficult to identify all the causes for this tragic development. In The Case of the Green Turtle, Alison Rieser stresses the local consumption of turtle eggs in the Caribbean, together with an international demand for green turtle meat and cartilage used for soup, which peaked during the 1960s.

Rieser’s book tells the story of how the green turtle came to be classified legally as an endangered species and why it is still so today. The book is very much a story about some of the first scientists who devised important laws and treaties during the 1970s and used these to prevent the turtle going extinct. Rieser shares with us an exhaustive, rich and mind-blowing historical narrative supported by crucial evidence and resources. The book is an extremely valuable contribution to understanding Latin America’s wildlife conservation and an important story for all those concerned with saving our natural world.

Alison Rieser is the Dai Ho Chun Professor of Ocean Governance at Geography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, and Professor Emerita at the University of Maine School of Law. Through Rieser’s expertise in ocean and environmental ecology, policy, and law, the book reveals how the [End Page 178] efforts to preserve the green turtle changed marine conservation. Rieser takes a unique interdisciplinary approach and focuses on the interface between science and policymaking in marine conservation.

The book is about ignorant fishery practices, rapid loss, and damaging deception, but it is also about bravery, humanity, and empathy. Rieser’s analysis reaches back to the beginning of the sixteenth century, where the English court’s favorite delicacy was green turtle soup made from turtles taken from the beaches and grass fats of Florida, Cuba, and Jamaica. She takes us through the nineteenth century where overfishing and destruction of eggs greatly reduced the turtle population. Even though laws were established by the end of the nineteenth century to save the existing population, many of these laws, unfortunately, had no real effect.

One of the book’s great advantages is the richness of photographs. One in particular made a great impression on me: It shows vacationers racing turtles on Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef in Australia, in 1938. The image fits into the displays of foreign cultures (humans on display), strange creatures and rarities in European zoos in the beginning of the twentieth century that were often brought back from expeditions. Even though the Queensland Society for the Preservation of Cruelty to Animals complained to the Queensland Department of Harbor and Marine in 1944, the activity as a tourist attraction was not outlawed for another two decades. Many guests were appalled and did not find the treatment of the turtles amusing but rather cruel.

While the turtle meat was the craving of the European capitals and resulted in thousands of live turtles being exported, people in the colonies were after the eggs. The nesting population most affected by egg harvesting was on the Turtle Islands of Sarawak, off the northwestern coast of Borneo. The canneries on Australia’s coral islands were killing femal adults while the Sarawak industry was collecting eggs. Some of the early scientific pioneers in turtle preservation were Tom Harrison and John R. Hendrickson. They found a method for tagging turtles with modified cow-ear tags, and Archie Carr who worked towards greater biological knowledge of the turtle at the Cayman Islands. Carr, in particular, wanted to establish that the turtles were mass migrators. He was convinced that science would overcome political and economic considerations. Based on the evidence on the green turtle’s nesting...