The trade of endangered sea turtles, for shells and meat, is illegal — but that hasn’t stopped traffickers from smuggling eggs from beaches and selling them to restaurants as a delicacy. Now, a conservation group is working to create a way to expose traffickers and put a stop to it.
In a study published in Current Biology, 3D-printed “decoy eggs” with GPS-tracking can be used to trace the spread and isolate main offenders. Produced by conservation group Paso Pacifico, the decoy eggs were designed in submission to the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, held by the United States Agency for International Development.
Paso Pacifico-affiliated scientist Kim Williams-Guillen designed the eggs, deriving inspiration from her favourite crime TV shows.
“In Breaking Bad, the DEA places a GPS tracking device on a tank of chemicals to see who receives the chemicals,” she said in a press release. “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 study’s lead author Helen Pheasey said, “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.”
Pheasey also confirmed that placing the decoys into turtle nests did not damage the incubating embyros, ensuring that the tracking could be done without risk.
For added confirmation, the team tested the decoys in the field, placing the eggs in turtle nests in Costa Rica. A quarter of the fake eggs were illegally removed, allowing researchers to track their movements. While some of these eggs only made it to nearby bars and residential areas, one made it almost 137 kilometers (85 miles) inland.
But according to Williams-Guillen, while it’s a strong start, this technology is far from the one and only solution. “It really must be used in the context of a multi-pronged conservation approach that uses education, building better economic opportunities, and enforcement to help fight sea turtle egg poaching.”