If you have ever watched a wildlife documentary on sea turtles, you might be familiar with the following scenes: a large female sea turtle lays eggs on the beach and covers it with sand. New hatched baby turtles emerge from the nest, seabirds and other predators feast on the hatchlings as they dash across the beach, and then the scene of an individual hatchling reaching the waves to the great relief of the audience.

Unfortunately, this mass exodus of baby turtles across the treacherous beach is not always the reality, as over 90% of sea turtle eggs in Central America never hatch. These eggs are harvested illegally by poachers, transported to cities, and eaten as they are considered a delicacy to humans. These eggs are eaten as there is a cultural belief that turtle eggs are aphrodisiacs, as well as for nutritional value and the tradition of eating turtle eggs that have been passed down for generations. Many sea turtle species are endangered, and poaching of the eggs is not only highly illegal, but also detrimental to the survival of these turtle species. Exotic foods and the illegal wildlife trade are big businesses around the world, and people are willing to pay exorbitant prices for these wildlife products. In Costa Rica, sea turtle eggs sell for about $1 each, and turtle nests can contain upwards of 100 eggs, making them tempting for poachers.

The InvestEGGator

For many years, scientists and conservationists have been struggling to come up with a method to deter poachers from stealing egg clutches. Despite monitoring and regular beach patrols, turtle poaching is still prevalent in Central America where the turtles come onto their ancestral beaches to lay their eggs.

New technology could help stop the uncontrollable poaching of turtle eggs. Researchers are hiding GPS devices inside decoy turtle eggs, which are then placed within the turtle nests. The fake eggs do not damage the incubating eggs. The purpose of these GPS devices is to track the egg’s journey from poacher to consumer. Oftentimes the identity of the poachers is known, and the decoy eggs aim to look at the bigger crime picture – how the eggs are trafficked and moved around the country.

A few years ago, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge posed a challenge to develop technology to detect wildlife trafficking transit routes. Conservation scientist Kim Williams-Guillen stepped up to the challenge, and inspired by true crime shows Breaking Bad and The Wire on television – where tracking devices were placed into tanks of chemicals and a tennis ball – came up with the idea for these decoy eggs, named the InvestEGGator.

To test the new technology, a research team from the University of Kent in the U.K. and the Nicaragua-based  environmental group Pasio Pacifico placed 101 realistic-looking egg decoys in sea turtle nests across four Costa Rican beaches. These InvestEGGators are 3D-printed spheres in the shape of turtle eggs, painted to look hyper-realistic, and fitted with GPS devices and an SMS detector that emit a signal once per hour if there are clear skies. One decoy egg per nest was deployed, as poachers often take the entire clutch of eggs.

Upon return, the researchers found that approximately 25% of the decoys were removed due to poaching. The remaining decoys were left behind in the now-empty nests, indicating that the decoys did not pose harm to the real eggs, which hatched as normal. The aim of the InvestEGGators is not to catch the poachers removing the eggs, but rather to find the end consumer and determine the supply chain.

Where Do The Eggs Go?

The researchers were able to track five trafficked clutches – three from the vulnerable Olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys olivacea) and two from the endangered green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas). One of the decoy eggs traveled from the beach to a residential property, while another ended up at a local bar about 1.2 miles from the beach. The longest distance one of the decoy eggs traveled was 85 miles. The egg was tracked for two days, from the nest to a back alley supermarket loading bay in the Costa Rican Central Valley. From there, it traveled to a residential home. As turtle eggs are not sold in supermarkets, it is assumed the loading bay was only the handover point between the trafficker and the salesperson or buyer.

Even the decoy eggs that failed in transmitting GPS devices were useful. One egg went offline near the town of Cariari, located 27 miles from the nest. The decoy egg was found by the community, and the research team received photos of the dissected decoy, as well as information on the point of sale and the amount of eggs sold. This indicates that the community is more than willing to share information on the local turtle egg trafficking trade, but also that they do not view it as a substantial problem – meaning halting poaching and trafficking of turtle eggs will be a real struggle.

Hope For Change

Humans have been eating sea turtle eggs for many generations. However, due to the increasing human population, and the dwindling sea turtle populations, poaching and trafficking of turtle eggs is unsustainable and may eventually contribute to the extinction of turtle species. Unfortunately, criminally charging the poachers will not solve the problem, as there will be others to take their places unless the living conditions of the local people improve.

The InvestEGGator will not alone result in saving turtle species, and must be used in conjunction with a multi-pronged conservation approach. The type of work that really benefits sea turtle conservation is education of the local community, building better economic opportunities for communities so that they do not have to resort to poaching for income, and enforcement to battle sea turtle egg poaching. Individually these are all small steps, but together it may allow sea turtles to be able to hatch their eggs in peace.

There is also hope that the InvestEGGator could be adapted to monitor the illegal trade of other wildlife species, such as crocodile and parrot eggs, as well as shark fin trafficking.