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These Fake GPS-Implanted Sea Turtle Eggs Will Help Track Poachers

The eggs of the endangered animal are considered a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. But now when someone grabs a handful from the sand, people will know.

In late July, working in the middle of the night, researchers began visiting beaches in Costa Rica with 3D-printed spheres–each roughly the size of a golf ball–designed to look like sea turtle eggs. They buried the decoy eggs in nests along with real eggs, covered their tracks on the beach, and waited. Inside each egg, a GPS device was ready to track the movements of poachers.

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It was the first trial of a new system developed by the Nicaragua-based nonprofit Paso Pacifico, which works to protect biodiversity in Central America. Sea turtles are especially at risk from poaching; in Nicaragua, for example, more than 95% of turtle eggs laid on beaches are poached and eaten locally or shipped to cities, where they are sold in bars and restaurants as a delicacy and supposed aphrodisiac. The nonprofit works with community volunteers to protect a handful of beaches, but can’t work everywhere.

“Even though our program has worked well on the beaches where we’ve worked, we’ll never have enough resources to protect all the beaches that need protection.” [Photo: Paso Pacifico]
“Outside of those beaches, pretty much all the eggs are stolen,” says Sarah Otterstrom, executive director of Paso Pacifico. “We realized that even though our program has worked well on the beaches where we’ve worked, we’ll never have enough resources to protect all the beaches that need protection.”

They turned to a 3D printer, which makes it fairly easy to replicate the shape of a sea turtle egg. With the help of a special effects artist from Hollywood, they perfected the right shade of paint and texture to make the egg look realistic. A lightweight GPS tracking device fits inside.

“It’s just mixed in 100 eggs with sand and mucus from the turtles–it’s very difficult to detect in that type of situation.” [Photo: Phil Torres]
On a beach, the fake eggs are hard to spot. “There are generally more than 100 eggs per nest,” says Otterstrom. “The advantage there is that you add one more egg that looks the same, and it has the same color, and it’s just mixed in 100 eggs with sand and mucus from the turtles–it’s very difficult to detect in that type of situation.”

The trackers don’t always work perfectly. In the first trial, which involved planting fake eggs in 44 sea turtle nests, some of the eggs from the nests that were poached may have been consumed locally, where cell-phone reception wasn’t strong enough to follow the signal. But others showed a clear path inland from the beach. The trial also proved that poachers would carry the decoys with them, unable to tell that they weren’t real.

When the nonprofit and others begin to use the eggs in ongoing programs, the data could be shared with governments to aid enforcement of anti-poaching laws, particularly if the trackers show that the eggs are crossing borders and violating international treaties. In other cases–because governments often don’t prioritize protecting the eggs–the data could be used in educational campaigns about the turtles. As poachers become aware of the artificial eggs, that could also serve as a deterrent.

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“We know from demographic models that there will never be a recovery if we don’t address the loss at sea turtle nests in beaches.” [Photo: Phil Torres]
Sea turtles face other risks, from climate change to ocean plastic pollution, but poaching is a key problem. “We know from demographic models that there will never be a recovery if we don’t address the loss at sea turtle nests in beaches,” says Otterstrom. Most species are either endangered or critically endangered.

Similar technology has been used to track poaching in other animals, including GPS-implanted fake elephant tusks that helped show how ivory funds African warlords. Paso Pacifico plans to use its approach to track poaching of other animals as well. Traffickers often poach parrot and macaw eggs for the pet trade, for example. “If we could get those trade routes figured out by having artificial parrot eggs, that could be really interesting,” she says.

Now that the group has shown that the devices can work, it’s working on lowering the cost to produce each egg, which are currently made individually. The cost now is more than $100 per egg, but the nonprofit hopes to reduce that to less than $50, so that it can be used by many more conservation nonprofits and governments. “Our goal right now is actually focused on the business model of the project and how to bring it to scale,” Otterstrom says. The group plans to launch the tech within six months.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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