GPS-Enabled Decoy Eggs Target Sea Turtle Traffickers

This photo shows a clutch of young sea turtles on the beach in Central America. (Photo by Paso Pacifico)

(CN) — As law enforcement goes, it doesn’t get much humbler than an egg.

But a 3D-printed egg embedded with a simple transmitter aims to disrupt the $26.5 billion illegal wildlife trade, according to a new study published by the journal Current Biology.

Believe it or not, the idea was inspired by television.

Study co-author and Paso Pacifico-affiliated scientist Kim Williams-Guillen said two of her favorite TV shoes, “Breaking Bad” and “The Wire,” inspired her to design a sea turtle egg decoy with a GPS-GSM transmitter.

Called InvestEGGator, the decoy is designed to look just like a real egg while emitting a signal once an hour, enabling scientists to embed the decoy into turtle nests on four beaches in Costa Rica.

“Turtle eggs basically look like ping pong balls, and we wanted to know where they were going — put those two ideas together and you have the InvestEGGator.”

Williams-Guillen’s colleague, study lead author Helen Pheasey of the University of Kent, immediately saw the decoy’s potential. Together the two scientists placed a single decoy in 101 turtle nests and tracked where they ended up.

The tactic, funded by the USAID Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, was even more successful than they hoped. One in four decoys were taken illegally from the nests, enabling researchers to track eggs from five clutches.

“Our research showed that placing a decoy into a turtle nest did not damage the incubating embryos and that the decoys work,” stated Pheasey. “We showed that it was possible to track illegally removed eggs from beach to end consumer as shown by our longest track, which identified the entire trade chain covering 137 kilometers.”

The shortest track ended up 92 feet from a residential property, while another traveled just over a mile to a bar. The decoy that traveled the farthest yielded the most information, exposing a trade chain that stretched 85 miles.

Not all decoys were successful. Some malfunctioned as the moist air penetrated the port seals and short-circuited the transmitters, while others were discarded by collectors at the nest sites. But even the discarded eggs yielded critical information.

“One decoy went off-line in a residential area near Cariari, a town 43 kilometers (27 miles) from the deployment beach,” the scientists wrote. “After 11 days, we received photographs, sent from Cariari, of the dissected egg.”

By sending the photos, collectors inadvertently provided data on where the egg was purchased and how many eggs had been exchanged.

Collectively, most of the early evidence indicates that most stolen eggs remain in the local area.

“Knowing that a high proportion of eggs remain in the local area helps us target our conservation efforts,” Pheasey explained. “We can now focus our efforts on raising awareness in the local communities and direct law enforcement to this local issue. It also means we know where the consumers are, which assists us in focusing demand reduction campaigns.”

Researchers were careful to conduct a targeted survey by focusing on where the eggs ended up instead from where they were taken.

And there is hope that the technology used in the egg decoy can be adapted to track illegal shipments of shark fins and parrot eggs.

However, technology can only take you so far. Despite its initial success, decoy designer Williams-Guillen encouraged a multipronged conservation approach that uses “education, building better economic opportunities, and enforcement to help fight sea turtle egg poaching.”

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