Seeking to address the rampant illegal trade of sea turtle eggs in Central America, researchers took inspiration from popular TV crime series, such as Breaking Bad and The Wire, and employed 3-D printed, GPS-enabled decoy eggs into nests on the beach — and this worked! Unsuspecting sea turtle egg traffickers collected the decoys along with the real eggs, and the researchers were able to track their movements across a trade chain covering 137 kilometers.
The study’s lead author, Helen Pheasey, a conservation biologist at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent in the UK, worked in close collaboration with conservation organization Paso Pacifico. The NGO’s mission is to stop the illegal trade of endangered sea turtles in Central America, and researchers affiliated with Paso Pacifico responded to a call for proposals for the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge organized by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which gathers projects that employ technology in order to fight wildlife poaching.
In Costa Rica, turtle eggs are considered a delicacy and ‘seasonal treat’, even an aphrodisiac. Poachers sell the eggs for about $1 each to restaurants and bars, and with each nest having as many as one hundred eggs per nest, selling them is definitely big business.
Although collecting endangered sea turtle eggs is illegal and despite beach patrols, poaching is still rampant in Costa Rica and the Caribbean.
“In response to this, we came up with the idea of putting a tracking device in sea turtle nests to see if it was possible to see where the eggs were going once they’ve been taken. And this innovation really sort of came from Breaking Bad and from The Wire where they placed tracking devices on a tank of chemicals in Breaking Bad and a sound recorder in a tennis ball in The Wire,” Pheasey told ZME Science.
“Essentially, what they did [Paso Pacifico] was they placed a 3d printed housing as similar as possible to a sea turtle egg. And inside it embedded a tracking device, which uses a similar sort of technology as your mobile phone. So it’s got a GPS and an SMS detector in there, and it will give you a signal, whenever there’s clear skies. My role really came in a lot later, they already had a prototype developed. I was actually the person who put the eggs in the nests. So I was the first person to deploy the decoys and actually test this technology on behalf of Pacifica,” she added.
Google Maps for poachers
The decoys, aptly named InvestEGGators, were placed in 101 turtle nests on four beaches in Costa Rica. A quarter of the fake eggs were eventually snatched by poachers from five clutches, including two belonging to two green turtle nests and three olive ridley nests.
Throughout all this time, the researchers could track the poachers’ movements through the GPS-enabled decoys. One made it close to a residential property before going radio silent, while another decoy traveled two kilometers to a nearby bar. But other poachers proved far more adventurous.
“We did it, we proved the concept that you can actually do this. And our longest track went from the beach to what we believe to be the end consumer. It was a 137-kilometer long track. Basically, what happened was the eggs were deployed in Aragon the Saturday night. On Monday morning, it started moving.”
“The biggest challenge was secretly setting the eggs in nests that were likely to get stolen by poachers. This is sometimes difficult to predict. A memorable moment was watching the movement of sea turtle nest eggs from the computer, and realizing that they had moved from the coast to a market in San Jose, Costa Rica, and then onto a residential neighborhood. This documents the entire illegal market chain, and also pinpoints potential points of sale. Law enforcement and the government could use this tool in the future,” Sarah Otterstrom, Executive Director of Paso Pacifico, told ZME Science.
Pheasey noted that the eggs could be tracked via a cell phone app which allowed this egg’s progress to be tracked hourly.
“I basically watched this egg moving farther and farther inland. And eventually, it stopped. So I zoomed in and it showed me very, very clearly that it had gone behind a supermarket — some sort of back alley supermarket loading bay kind of area, which was pretty suspicious. There’s really no reason to be there unless you’re up to up to no good and that was a great result in itself,” Pheasey told ZME Science.
“Then, the next day, I went to download the data from the eggs and, lo and behold, it had moved again, it was actually in a residential property. Now, this really does give us a lot of information. We know for a fact that the egg was taken illegally from the beach. The fact that it spent two days in sort of waiting suggests that it may have been handed over to a trafficker and there was definitely some transaction going on behind that supermarket… Then [the egg] ended up in a residential property, which really fits with what we know about the illegal trade of eggs in Costa Rica. We know from anecdotal information (from interviews) that eggs are sold door to door, and it seems very likely that this is what has happened.”
Another decoy traveled 43 kilometers from the deployment beach, before going silent in a residential area near the Costa Rican town of Cariari. Eleven days later, Paso Pacifico received photos of the dissected fake egg, along with information about where the eggs were supposedly purchased and for how much. This shows that the local community is aware of poaching activity and is actively interested in aiding conservation efforts by supplying information.
“Now, what we’re looking to do is invite people to actually participate in this project themselves… If they’ve got a turtle monitoring project, and they want to deploy some of these eggs, it’ll be very, very interesting to see what challenges they face in different places. For us, we found that the behavior of illegal harvesters was different on different coastlines on the Caribbean. And most of the illegal activity was happening very early hours of the morning, say 4 am. Whereas in the Pacific, it was happening in the early evening, sort of 6-7 pm. So this is just one of these things that you wouldn’t know until you actually get out into the field and test these things. And that’s what we’d like to see more,” said Pheasey.
The British researcher added that nobody was arrested, nor any legal repercussions resulted from this field trial. “It was very much about learning what the eggs were capable of,” Dr. Pheasey told me.
“Something to be aware of is that the local illegal harvesters, we’re pretty familiar with them, we know who they are. What we’re interested in doing with this technology is actually taking it beyond that, and looking at the bigger crime if you like, which is trafficking the eggs and moving the eggs around the country. That’s very much what we’re interested in from a law enforcement perspective,” she added.
“But this is very much part of a holistic approach to the problem. And a lot of the work that really will benefit the conservation of sea turtles is education, providing people with opportunities, so they’re not having to resort to taking wildlife resources illegally, and they don’t have to run those risks. So improving literacy in the area, providing better healthcare, better education, and all of these will serve alongside this law enforcement tool.”
“Dr. Pheasey is looking forward to a career in international wildlife trade. Paso Pacifico is working with local and international partners to explore concepts around the design of decoy trackers for shark fins and parrot eggs. Presently, we are meeting with conservationists who work on the ground on these species, but the design portion is in very early stages,” Otterstrom added.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.