A 3D-printed ‘fake turtle egg’ with a GPS tracker inside – placed in sea turtle nests on the beach – has helped conservationists expose the rampant illegal trade in eggs.
Despite an international agreement banning the trade of sea turtle eggs, the trade is still going on, with many of the eggs being sold for food – and it can be difficult to trace and prosecute the dealers.
University of Kent experts developed a tracker, dubbed the InvestEGGator, to find these illegal traders without impacting the safety of the real sea turtle eggs.
The fake egg is designed to resemble a turtle egg, is fitted with a GPS tracking device, and is then placed inside the nest made by sea turtles on the beach.
It is gathered up by ‘traders’ with the real eggs and can then be tracked to identify where the eggs end up – such as restaurants and bars where it is sold as a delicacy.
This photo shows a clutch of young sea turtles on the beach in Central America. Despite an international agreement banning the trade of sea turtle eggs, the trade is still going on, and it can be difficult to trace and prosecute the dealers
This photo shows the interior of a decoy turtle egg with visible GPS tracking mechanism. A 3D-printed ‘fake turtle egg’ with a GPS tracker inside – placed in sea turtle nests on the beach – has helped conservationists expose the rampant illegal trade in eggs
The trade of sea turtle eggs is banned under the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Fauna agreement.
Helen Pheasey, from the University of Kent, said studies found placing a decoy into the turtle nest didn’t damage the incubating embryos so was a viable solution.
Kim Williams-Guillen, a scientist affiliated with the conservation organisation Paso Pacifico who created the decoy, said it was an ‘Aha’ moment.
‘In Breaking Bad, the DEA places a GPS tracking device on a tank of chemicals to see who receives the chemicals,’ Williams-Guillen said.
This photo shows a dozen decoy turtle eggs in a carton. It is gathered up by ‘traders’ with the real eggs and can then be tracked to identify where the eggs end up – such as restaurants and bars where it is sold as a delicacy
‘In one episode of the Wire, two police officers plant an audio device in a tennis ball to surreptitiously record a suspected drug dealer.
‘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.’
The researchers planted the decoys in 101 turtle nests on four beaches in Costa Rica.
A quarter of the fake eggs were taken illegally from the nests, with one going to a residential property and another going just under a mile away to a bar.
The furthest ending up 85 miles inland, spending two days in transit from the beach to a supermarket loading-bay and then onto a residential property.
The researchers assume the egg wasn’t sold at the market but was rather handed off there, from a trafficker to a salesperson.
Along with tracking the egg, the researchers say they are getting ‘anecdotal reports’ and photographs from locals that are also helping pin down the culprits.
‘One decoy went off-line in a residential area near Cariari, a town 43 km from the deployment beach,’ the team wrote.
‘After 11 days, we received photographs, sent from Cariari, of the dissected egg.’
Along with the photos, they got information about where the egg was purchased and how many eggs had been exchanged.
This photo shows researcher Helen Pheasey holding a decoy egg on the beach with a sea turtle
The findings show that the decoy eggs already are yielding intelligence from the local community in addition to tracking data, they noted.
Pheasey, a PhD student, said the majority of stolen eggs do not leave the area which is positive as local law enforcement can deal with the issue.
‘Knowing that a high proportion of eggs remain in the local area helps us target our conservation efforts,’ she said, adding they can focus on raising awareness and directing local law enforcement to the culprits.
‘It also means we know where the consumers are, which assists us in focusing demand reduction campaigns,’ Pheasey added.
Green Sea Turtle hatchling at Playa Brasilon, near Ostional, Nicaragua. The trade of sea turtle eggs is banned under the international Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Fauna agreement
‘As trafficking is a more serious crime, those handover points are far more valuable from a law enforcement perspective than catching someone taking a nest.’
The researchers say they are hoping to expand their InvestiEGGator project into other illegal trades, such as shark fins and parrot eggs.
Dr Williams-Guillen said whatever they do to expand the project – it must be used in the context of a ‘multi-pronged conservation approach’.
He said this needs to include ‘education, building better economic opportunities, and enforcement to help fight sea turtle egg poaching.’
The study was published in Current Biology.