3D printed turtle eggs may not be on your Christmas list this year, but ask any marine biologist and you’ll understand why these deceptive devices are the hottest new item in the fight against illegal poaching.
According to CNN, the eggs are the product of a collaboration between US-based conservation organization Paso Pacifico and Hollywood special effects artists.
Paso Pacifico 3D prints the “InvestEGGator” devices using a flexible plastic material. About the size of ping pong balls, the eggs each carry a SIM card that transmits GPS data through mobile networks. They are then given a coat of textured yellow paint created by Hollywood special effects artist Lauren Wilde.
At a glance. the finished InvestEGGator is nearly indistinguishable from a real turtle egg. It just needs to be charged by USB before it’s taken out into the field.
Scientists like Helen Pheasey are using these decoy eggs to track poachers. Pheasey simply buries one of the fake eggs in an Olive Ridley turtle nest, returns to her laboratory where she can track the device, and watches where the telltale blip moves after poachers arrive at the beach.
“One decoy traveled under 50 meters (160 feet) to the nearest beach house, one moved two kilometers (just over a mile) to the nearest bar, while another went 137 kilometers (85 miles) inland, providing solid evidence of the turtle egg trade,” CNN reports.
Tracking these devices is not unlike finding a lost phone, the scientist admits.
“It’s just like your mobile phone,” Pheasey said. “If you bury your phone in the sand, you’re not going to have any signal. But as soon as they’re uncovered, they’ll come online.”
Paso Pacifico estimates that poachers are responsible for the destruction of at least 90% of sea turtle nests in Central America. Pheasey has been using the InvestEGGator eggs to track those poachers for over two years. Between 2017 and 2019 she buried 101 of the decoy eggs on beaches in Costa Rica.
Pheasey’s findings were published in Current Biology by Cell Press.
“We deployed one decoy per nest in 101 turtle nests on four beaches in Costa Rica, of which 25% were illegally taken,” Pheasey writes. “The decoys tracked eggs from five illegally removed clutches. Our shortest track emitted its final signal 28 m from a residential property, while another travelled 2 km to a bar. Our furthest moving decoy travelled 137 km inland identifying a near-complete trade chain; spending two days in transit from beach to a supermarket loading-bay in the Central Valley, it transmitted a final signal from a residential property the following day. Given that mobile vendors sell eggs door-to-door in Costa Rica, the supermarket was a likely handover point between trafficker and salesperson.”
In coastal communities like Costa Rica, turtle eggs have for centuries been considered a mainstay food, if not a regional delicacy. Demand for the eggs has only increased as distributions channels, and the poachers that supply them, have become more effective.
“They are now considered a delicacy and an aphrodisiac,” said Sarah Otterstrom, conservation scientist and executive director of Paso Pacifico. “In many bars and restaurants, people make turtle egg soup or put a raw turtle egg in a drink.” As turtle populations decline, protecting their eggs is crucial to ensuring their survival.
According to the Costa Rica News, the global illegal wildlife trade is a $23 billion industry. Money like that is hard to turn down if you don’t mind contributing top the extinction of a species.
Otterstrom, Pheasey and others working to save the Olive Ridley and Pacific Green sea turtles from this fate are hoping this new approach to tracking poachers will assist law enforcement efforts. Pheasey believes it will dissuade “marginalized individuals trying to make a quick buck,” from pushing the species past the point of no return.
Learn more in the video below.
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