There are shells, shells, and shells, but here we are focusing on marine and freshwater shells, and such as those of land snails and tortoises.

A shell is the rigid, outermost body-part of a marine creature, although a few species have internal body shells. Sea shells, freshwater shells, snail shells, mollusc shells, gastropod shells and turtle shells are a few of the many species. Shells are developed by living molluscs, crustaceans, turtles, tortoises, armadillos and many other living organisms. They are essential for survival and serve in movement, feeding, protection and defence.

Not “Empty”

A living marine creature’s protective hard and often colourfully attractive, covering or shell is very much part of its body. How then do beachcombers find “empty” sea shells? First of all, few of these are actually “empty” because most have tiny lives in them – discovered by BWC before a bagful gathered on a beach were rinsed or cleaned (by boiling in a pot of water to kill the creatures inside). Other lives take refuge in the “empty” shells (skeletons) after the original creatures die.


Marine creatures often use the shells of those that have died. For example, octopuses use clamshells as shelter, and hermit crabs use empty marine gastropod shells as protection.


So-called “empty” shells are cruelly emptied for sale because it is easy to gather living marine creatures, kill them and clean their shells for commercial gain. One finds heaps for sale at tourist spots along India’s long coastline, e.g. Kanyakumari. 1,800 types of seashells are found in our seas.


Wouldn’t this revelation be a good enough reason not to collect so-called “empty” sea shells as a memento of a trip to the beach?

Yet one finds people visiting beaches such as Marari (Kerala), Bheemunipatnam (Andhra Pradesh), Kaup (Karnataka), Tarkarli (Maharashtra) and Galgibaga (Goa) in order to go sea shell hunting… dolphin and turtle spotting at these beaches would be by far better.

Unfortunately shell collectors are very common; whereas, few are conchologists – those who study shells.

Marine Curio Markets of India

It is a pity that India’s Export Policy 2012 permits sea shells and handicrafts made from them, to go out “free” (allowed) but subject to the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972 and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) regulations.

Kanyakumari has been labelled as the hub of the illegal marine curio market of India because cowries, conches, corals, sea horses, sea stars, and much more is freely sold here. The Gulf of Mannar has 3,500 species of flora and fauna making Rameswaram the main collection centre whereas Thoothukudi (Tuticorin) is a big processing hub. Consignments are even brought there form Andaman & Nicobar and Lakshadweep Islands as well as from Tanzania and the Philippines. No wonder some of the conches sold there are not found in India.

Fisherfolk of Thoothukudi traditionally known for their diving skills for pearl oysters, also dive for particular types of shells therefore not all shells that are obtained and sold are by-catches of fishing.

Both real Sacred Shankhs and fake Valampuri Shankhs are sold at Rameswaram and Kanyakumari as these places are visited by pilgrims, not only tourists.

Marine curios are also freely sold at other pilgrim centres such as Somnath, Puducherry, Goa, Kochi, Kovalam, Haridwar, Rishikesh and Vaishno Devi.

However, it was heartening to know that in 2016 following a tip-off, 4 lorries of 90 tonnes of protected sea shells were seized by the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau. They were being taken to a private firm at Navi Mumbai to make gel flakes used for oil mining in the Gulf region. While there are 1,12,000 types of molluscs and shells only 75 are endangered species.


The most common sea shells are bivalves (mussels, clams, scallops, oysters and such shellfish that is eaten) found in both marine and fresh waters. As soon as their shells are pried open, they die.

Fisherwomen of Sindhudurg on the Konkan coast who undertake crab farming as mentioned under Crustaceans below, are also into oyster farming. The Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) has convinced them that the demand for crabs and oysters is on the rise. Way back in the 1970s the CMFRI developed the oyster culture technology but it was not put to use till Maharashtra decided on doing so at Sindhudurg. Thus bivalve farming projects began in Wadatar, Taramumbri, Achra and Devbag villages along the coast. Like crabs, oysters do not need to be fed. Bamboo poles were erected in the creeks and empty oyster shells strung up on ropes. These make resting places for oysters so that they can collect here instead of flowing away into the sea. The estimated production from a single raft of 150 sqm is 187 kgs in 15 months. In the first round 6,000 oysters were killed for 125 kgs of meat worth Rs 50,000/-.

Oyster culture technology or farming is also being promoted by CMFRI as a rural development programme on the south west coast of Kerala.

Oysters are usually consumed “fresh” or eaten raw by opening the shell with a shucking knife, adding a lime juice or vinegar dressing and scooping out the flesh. Few like to kill and eat raw oysters thus, so they are cooked: the heat opens the shells and kills them.


Pearls (natural and man-made) reflect long term pain for pearl oysters (living mollusc shells). Searching for and removing the pearl inside involves splitting open the oysters by inserting a knife between the two valves and twisting it to cut the adductor muscle that holds the shell closed, thus effectively killing the creature.


Mother-of-pearl is nacre, and like pearl, it is produced by living molluscs (oysters and abalone) and is actually their inner shell and the outcome of killing.


Mother-of-pearl is no longer used as extensively as it was, however, it is utilised in lots of wrist watch dials, jewellery, inlay work (in wood, marble), buttons for clothing, accessories, cutlery handles, light shades, tiles and musical instruments, so one has to be super-alert to avoid them when shopping. Whether natural, bleached, or dyed (like dark brown) the shimmering pearly layers are always visible. Unfortunately, India permits the import and export of worked mother-of-pearl and articles although restricted in many other nations. River shells are also utilised from within India.


Imitation mother-of-pearl can be of acrylic. Or it can consist of aragonite (a mineral made up of calcium carbonite) and a fibrous silk gel grown in a matrix. Remember therefore that imitation or faux mother-of-pearl may not always be free of animal substances.

Shell pearls, as the name indicates, are made from shells. Pieces of mother-of-pearl, oyster-shell, coral or conch-shell are spherically shaped, then coated with several layers of pearl dust, baked and polished. They could even be coated with essence d’Orient (a solution containing bleak fish scales) like glass beads which are the base of imitation pearls.

Capiz shells which have a similar lustre to mother-of-pearl are mainly found and used in the Philippines for jewellery such as bead necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Decorative handicraft items are also made from them.


Shells are also found as a protective layer on soft and delicate creatures that live in fresh water like mussels and snails – even land snails.


Escargot (pronounced es-ka-go) is French for snails and is one of the highlights of French gastronomy imported into India. The snails are “hygienically grown” being fed on a special diet of ground cereal, then “cleaned and gutted and made ready for cooking” in garlic butter with parsley and wine or cognac.


The Central Inland Capture Fisheries Research Institute also sees nothing wrong in breeding Giant African Snails so that they can be converted into “gastronomic delights”. However, they are considered as one of the world’s most damaging invasive species that damage crops since they are voracious eaters, have widely spread from Kerala to other states in India.

Nagas consume river snails which are cooked with dal and sucked. They are purchased by the kilogram from the Dimapur bazaar.

Manipuri cuisine also includes river (freshwater) snails. Their faces are individually scooped out and discarded. This is followed by cutting off their tapering ends on the third band/ridge so their meat can be sucked out easily. They are then placed in a pot and a large quantity of salt is dumped upon them. This is followed by lots of water so they get completely submerged and die if not already dead. After some time they are rinsed, and considered clean enough for cooking.


Calcium hydroxide derived from shells is called organic edible calcium. For its production living shells or marine animals are collected in large numbers from sea shores and in particular from the backwaters of Kerala. The flesh of the live creatures inside the shells is scooped out and sold in local meat markets, whereas the shells are sold to the choona factories of the region.


The demand for shells is very high because they are converted to edible lime, the main ingredient of chewing paan. Whitewashing walls is another common use. And, calcium of shell origin is extensively found in Allopathy, Ayurveda, Siddha, Unani and Homeopathy products despite the use of sea shells attracting a minimum of three years imprisonment under the Wildlife (Protection) Act.


For detailed information on Lime or Choona please read


The operculum is the top covering or lid of gastropods, mussels of marine origin, the gills of fish or horny shells of mollusc. Their uses range from frivolous use as paperweights to incense material in different parts of the world.


Known as Nakhla in India, it is used as a fixative in perfumes/scents. The fishy smell is first removed with vinegar, alcohol and water, after which the opercula are ground to a powder.


If of good quality, when burnt the Nakhla powder smells like Castoreum (a glandular secretion from beavers, also used in perfume-making) whereas if of poor quality when burnt it smells like hair.

Turtle Shells

Both turtles (that dwell in water) and tortoises (that live on land) are shielded with shells: carapace is the top part of the shell, and plastron the underside or belly shell.


Trade in tortoise-shell (bekko in Japanese) is banned under CITES, yet turtles are farmed (bred and raised to be killed for their eggs, meat and shells) in several countries.


Turtle- and tortoise-shells are converted into a variety of products such as musical instruments, fire-bellows, medicines, shell gelatine jelly called guilinggao, personal accessories, trinkets, decorative and household items and even oracle bones!

Armadillos and Pangolins

Armadillos are mammals with a leathery armour or thick shell that covers their backs. In defence against predators they retreat their feet under the shell’s edge and touch the ground with the circumferences of their shells. They live in semi-deserts, mountain pastures, forest edges and on river banks.


Unfortunately humans see nothing wrong in converting armadillo shells into musical instruments, or meaningless items such as baskets with the animal’s banded tail curled over the shell to form a handle and the head also retained.

Pangolins look fairly similar to armadillos – both have a protective shell. These scaly anteaters are also grouped with other anteaters and sloth. They have no teeth but a long sticky tongue that picks up ants and termites.

The third Saturday in February is World Pangolin Day.

Their name is derived from the Malay word pengguling which means something that rolls up, which is exactly what they do if threatened – their keratin scales act as armour. In Hindi they are known as bajra keet or kapta.

In 2012 a taxi driver who was transporting eight gunny bags full of pangolin scales that were headed for Myanmar due to their perceived medicinal value for curing bone problems and for witchcraft, was caught in Mizoram. The scales were claimed to be from Indian pangolins that had been hunted in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

Pangolins are in fact found all over India, more so in the East. They are poached mainly by tribes for meat, bile, scales and claws utilised for so-called medical benefits, and for monetary gain.

Investigations have revealed pangolins are dug out of their burrows by smoking or flushing out with water; pitfall traps are also used, as well as hunting with dogs. If caught alive, they are killed by being thrown into boiling water or are clubbed to death.

In West Bengal and Odisha, the flesh is believed to cure various diseases. The scales are removed and some are fashioned into finger rings like those worn in Odisha to cure piles. However, the majority of scales are typically smuggled to Nepal or Myanmar, with their final destination being China. Surprisingly, boots and coats are also made from the scales.

Traffic India estimated 3,350 pangolins were poached (undetected apart) between 2009 and 2013, the figure having been arrived at on the basis of at least 6 pangolins killed per 10 kgs of scales.

In 2015 the District Wildlife Crime Control Unit Committee at Kohima intercepted a consignment of 10 kgs pangolin scales worth Rs 18.6 lakh smuggled into Nagaland from Assam, en route Manipur, planning to reach Myanmar.

Soon after 13 persons were arrested for having poached and smuggled 100 pangolins from Madhya Pradesh to China and Vietnam. This was followed by the king-pin of the Indo-China pangolin smuggling racket eventually being arrested in July 2015.


Crustaceans are a class of arthropods that have an exoskeleton which aids movement and gives protection to creatures such as lobsters, crabs, crayfish, shrimps, prawns, krill and barnacles.

Lobsters have existed for a hundred million years and have instinctively learnt to guard their own bodies. Few people care to know that like humans, their pregnancies last 9 months, and again like us some are left-handed – and believe it or not, have been seen walking hand-in-hand! They have a long childhood, use complicated signals to explore and establish social relationship with each other, and even flirt. That’s not all they live for over 100 years, although less than 1% of them are actually allowed to survive that long.

Shockingly the Kovalam field laboratory of Cochin’s Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) developed an extremely cruel technique in the 1980s to remove eyestalks of lobsters because they found that lobsters grew faster. Blinding them induced a hormone reaction resulting in increasing their moulting frequency by which crustaceans grow.

When in an attempt to find alternatives to plastic straws, in 2019 some companies in UK began choosing straws made from chitosan, derived from aquatic creatures consisting of exoskeletons of crustaceans like shellfish like crabs, lobsters, and shrimp, vegetarians and vegans were warned that these alternative biodegradable straws were unsuitable for them. In fact, chitin is globally being used as a resource for eco-friendly bioplastics.

India’s 400 crab species are found almost every where in the country and crab meat is eaten by communities living near lakes, rivers and sea.

Crabs and lobsters are cruelly plunged live into a pot of boiling water – tortured to death. There is no such thing as “killing them with kindness”. Lobsters thrash around literally shrieking as they are unable to escape death, whereas crabs shed their claws and legs as a defence mechanism and are therefore immersed in fresh water and drowned for eight hours instead – after which they are cooked and often served whole in the shell. A cookery show telecast in India had a live crab’s upper shell being torn off and the creature’s flesh scooped out.


In October 2019 a Singapore eatery had to stop a bizarre promotional stunt where customers used an arcade-style machine called “Come Catch Me” with a mechanical claw to catch live crabs. If successful the crab was killed and cooked on the spot.

Crayfish are generally frozen to put them in a comatose state and then “dispatched”. Some are stabbed in the head with a knife. A contestant on the Master Chef NZ show received many threats from the public for boiling a crayfish alive.

Aided under the United Nations Development Programme along with the Ministry of Environment, Maharashtra government and with support from the Global Environment Facility, fisherwomen of Sindhudurg on the Konkan coast, are farming crabs and oysters. 5,000 mangrove saplings have also been planted under this project. For years the women used to spear the wild crabs with an iron rod, but since 2013 they have been farming them. During low tide they catch the crabs in the mud by poking a stick to locate them (these sand crabs consume organic debris thus keeping our beaches clean). Although the survival rate of the crabs is only 60% they feel crab farming is lucrative.

2013 evidence published in the Journal of Experimental Biology states that scientists from Queen’s University, Belfast, UK, have stated that crabs and other crustaceans feel pain and that the food and aquaculture industry should start to think about their welfare.

Each year half a million horseshoe crabs are captured, bled alive – and released but they are never the same healthy creatures again – for a chemical that can detect bacterial presence. If there is bacterial contamination then coagulation does not occur and the solution is considered free of bacteria. The test is called LAL and since every drug certified by the FDA must be tested using LAL, all American pharmaceutical companies use horseshoe crabs. Cruel – 18% of the bled crabs tracked died and others suffered and females were less likely to mate.

It was therefore a relief to know that a synthetic substitute for the blue blood of these living fossils has been available since 2003. Recombinant factor C is as effective but it was very many years later in 2018 that Eli Lilly submitted to the FDA its first application for a drug to be tested with it and the company hopes that the US Pharmacopoeia will include it just like the European Pharmacopoeia added it as an accepted bacterial-toxin test in 2016.

Sea Urchins

Moveable spines grow out of the spherical-shaped and delicately pretty shells (called tests) of sea urchins. Certain species of sea urchins are captured, killed and served as delicacies, thus cutting short their lives. The red sea urchin lives for more than 200 years and is the longest living creature on earth.

The fragile sea urchins’ shells are dried, spines removed and painted for use as candle holders, bowls, and other decorative items.


Octopuses are the most intelligent among invertebrates. For example, Germany’s Paul the octopus possessed psychic powers. He became famous after accurately predicting eight of eight winning football teams during the 2010 FIFA World Cup. He died of natural causes some months later so was not available to predict for the 2014 FIFA which saw animals from many countries struggling to accurately predict international football winners.

The plural of octopus is octopuses, octopi or octopodes. It is a cephalopod mollusc. It has a beak with its mouth at the centre point of its arms which are boneless.


Octopuses live in abandoned shells or even empty cans. Believe it or not, babies are so innocent and fearless that they permit to be touched smooth and close their eyes in pleasure, and, just like cats, they are happy to rub themselves against human legs.

There is scientific evidence that octopuses experience pain, suffering, distress and lasting harm.

White colour “attracts” octopuses (like red for bulls) so hunters show them a white cloth and lure them out of hiding. When suddenly stabbed with a long sharp knife between their eyes, they squirt venomous ink. They are then beaten, literally 100 times, to death so their flesh gets tenderized. A Master Chef TV cookery show had a contestant objecting to beating the creature but was forced to continue.

Octopuses feature in Japanese, Hawaiian, Portuguese and Korean cuisines where they are some times sliced up and eaten alive while still squirming on the plate. For a South Korean dish called Sannakji the octopus is washed, cut up into small pieces, seasoned with sesame and sesame oil, and served with the tentacles still wriggling. A variation includes consuming a living baby octopus. Incidentally, the suction cups on the tentacles can stick to the human food pipe!

Conch Shells

At Rameswaram special fishing nets that are used that drag through the bottom of the seabed to catch fish also bring up conches/shankhs, in addition to which some divers go down into the sea every other day to find special natural shaped conches that whorl to the left. Ironically Muslims make a living here by acid-washing these unclean foul smelling conches that are then polished and painted for use in Shiva, Lakshmi and other Hindu temples in different parts of India. Even traders from Karnataka, Gujarat, West Bengal and Andaman & Nicobar Islands send their catch of shells and conches to be processed at Rameswaram. Necklaces, lampshades shell-curtains, artefacts and bangles are also made and sold here.

In fact, conch shells or shankhs of specified sizes are traditionally fished by people of the Ramnad District in Tamil Nadu. Skin divers risk their lives (oxygen cylinders are not allowed) to collect them from the bottom of the sea.

However, the market for these shells is West Bengal where they are culturally used. Orissa and Gujarat also harvest and sell shankhs to Bengalis for their pujas. Moreover, married women wear shankh bangles. No wonder then that following the import ban on conch shells in 2001 and after a consignment from Sri Lanka was seized, Bengalis panicked. In 2005 some seized bangles made of Trochus niloticus a very large species of sea snail and capiz shell handicrafts were destroyed by the government in the zoo’s incinerator at Delhi.

A hole is carefully made at the base of a shankh without its natural whorl being affected. When blown it produces a loud, sharp and piercing sound. For example since 2017 conch shell pathaks are seen blowing shells alongside the dhol-tasha groups in the streets of Pune during Ganeshotsav. They are used as musical instruments although terracotta and resin alternatives are available.

The exquisite Bishnupur terracotta shankh in brick and black colours, bearing designs found on temple walls, blow just like real conch shells, considered absolutely necessary on auspicious occasions and for religious ceremonies by Bengalis. They can thus be easily obtained for use without the loss of a life – that of the sea creature living inside the real shell which would otherwise need to be killed for the shell.

Smuggling and Seizures

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Illegal Trade of Marine Species in India 2015-21 Report states 120 sea cucumbers, 18 sea fans (a variety of coral), 16 seahorse & pipefish, and 16 seashells, corals & calcareous sponge marine wildlife was seized and cases registered during the 7 year period. 36 seizure incidents pertaining to ambergris were also recorded. The smuggling destinations were China, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or Dubai.

Page last updated on 08/05/24