Conservation scientist Kim Williams-Guillén was wracking her brain to come up with a way to save endangered sea turtles from egg poachers when she had an “aha” moment: If she placed a fake egg containing a GPS tracker in the reptiles’ nests, she might be able to track the thieves.
The idea won her the 2015 Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge—and a $10,000 prize. Now, Williams-Guillén, a conservation scientist at the environmental nonprofit Paso Pacífico, and a multinational team of colleagues have not only made the device—dubbed the InvestEGGator—but have also published the results of their first field test. Of 101 decoy eggs, five were able to track the routes of poachers up to hundreds of kilometers away. The “amazing” approach could one day help identify and stop high-level traffickers in the trade chain, says Héctor Barrios-Garrido, a conservation biologist from the University of Zulia, Maracaibo, who was not involved with the study.
Sea turtle eggs are a culinary delicacy in Central America, and some believe the eggs can improve sexual performance. All seven sea turtle species are listed as threatened—some critically so—and egg poachers are only exacerbating the problem. Yet conservationists simply do not have the capacity to continuously patrol large beaches throughout the laying season.
That’s where the decoy eggs come in. To build them, Williams-Guillén found a pliable plastic material called Ninjaflex that mimics the squishy exterior of real eggs. She and colleagues then used a 3D printer to fabricate the fakes. Finally, they embedded the smallest GPS tracking devices they could find inside each. The result: a decoy about the same size, weight, and texture of a green sea turtle egg, one of the larger species of sea turtle.
The researchers then went to four Costa Rican beaches, where green sea turtle and olive ridley sea turtles come ashore to make their nests. As mothers laid their eggs under cover of night, the researchers slipped a single spy egg into each clutch. Once the decoys are covered in sand and mucus from the real eggs, “it’s very difficult to tell the difference between the two,” says Helen Pheasey, a conservation biologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the study.
Of the 101 deployed eggs, 25 were taken by poachers. The thieves quickly discovered six of them and left them on the beach. The team received tracking data for five other decoys, three of which had been hidden in olive ridley nests and two of which had been concealed in green turtle nests.
The farthest moving egg traveled 137 kilometers inland, the team reports today in Current Biology, stopping at the back alley of a supermarket. From there, Pheasey deduced, the poacher handed the stolen clutch off to a salesperson who likely peddled eggs door to door. The decoy egg sent its final signal the next day from a residential property, suggesting, she says, that the research team had tracked the eggs through “all of the players in the entire chain.”
By understanding that chain—and seeing where the stolen eggs cluster—Williams-Guillén says researchers can identify trading hot spots. She emphasizes that the tracker is not a way to catch local poachers, many of whom are living in poverty, but rather a tool to better understand their routes. Learning local trading hot spots could help them—and eventually law enforcement—identify larger players in the trafficking chain.
Still, Barrios-Garrido notes that stopping trafficking is not as simple as handing the tracking data over to law enforcement to make arrests. Across Central America, trade in sea turtle eggs can be legally ambiguous, he says. In Costa Rica, for example, it is illegal to poach and sell sea turtle eggs but buying them is not a crime. “It is not black and white.”
In the meantime, Williams-Guillén and her colleagues are working to get their decoy eggs to other sea turtle conversation organizations. Ultimately, though, scientists and nonprofits are going to need to engage communities with local outreach and education programs to save sea turtles, she says. “The real meat and potatoes of conservation isn’t going to come from deploying eggs.”