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Can turtles and dugongs be killed humanely using traditional hunting methods?

The most humane methods for killing animals cause immediate unconsciousness without pain or suffering, followed by death without consciousness being regained. The most humane way to kill an animal in the wild, including turtles and dugongs, is an accurate head shot using a firearm to cause immediate and sufficient brain damage resulting in death.

In Australia, some indigenous communities participate in traditional hunting of turtles and dugongs. This activity poses many challenges in terms of animal welfare regarding the methods and equipment used and the difficulty in achieving immediate loss of consciousness and/or death. Hunting practices may differ among different aboriginal communities and the methods used for killing dugongs and turtles can also vary in humaneness, especially as turtles and dugongs are difficult to render unconscious. An important aim for traditional hunters is to preserve the practices used by their predecessors, which may exclude using the most humane method, a head shot using a firearm. However, some modern aspects are incorporated such as motor boats to chase animals targeted for hunting.


Dugongs are typically hunted in aluminium dinghies powered by outboard motors and are captured by harpooning the animal (with two strikes – one to the neck and one to the lower back region). This harpooning may occur after the dugong has been chased for a time and become exhausted. The animal is then killed by lassoing it, tying it to the dinghy and positioning it with its head in the water so that it drowns. Where firearms are permitted and available, a shot to the head to destroy the brain is a quicker and more humane alternative to harpooning and drowning. Tethering dugong calves to attract other mature dugongs is an inhumane practice due to the injuries and distress caused to the calves.


Marine turtles are also hunted in aluminium dinghies with the hunter diving onto the turtle’s back and dragging the animal into the boat. The turtle is either killed once ashore or kept alive to be killed later. Various methods are used to kill turtles including blows to the head with a rock, ramming a pointed stick up the nostril and into the brain, and cutting the throat.

Marine turtles are difficult to render unconscious and kill because they can tolerate low levels of oxygen (which is necessary for their diving ability). Therefore it is likely that a turtle can feel pain and distress for a long period even after having its head cut from its body or losing a high proportion of its blood (after the throat is cut). It can also be very difficult to confirm when a turtle is dead as its heart will continue to beat even when the brain has been destroyed. Sometimes they are butchered or cut up straight after capture, while the animal is still alive. This practice is considered extremely inhumane. Various methods are used to prevent turtles from escaping which are inhumane such as leaving turtles on their backs, cutting off a flipper or tethering by a flipper.

A turtle’s brain is small and located deep within its skull, so a blow to the head is not usually effective and only recommended when no other method is available (and should be carried out immediately after the turtle’s head has been cut from the body with one firm blow). Recently, a simple but humane method for euthanasing sea turtles by traditional hunters has been suggested. This method requires a minimum of training and equipment and uses a pointed chisel and heavy hammer to destroy the brain. Further research on this method and others is currently being conducted. A gunshot to the brain or correctly placed captive bolt to the head are also considered to be humane. When performed correctly these techniques cause rapid unconsciousness and death through the destruction of the brain.

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Updated on May 1, 2019
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