A new study using artificial sea turtle eggs containing GPS loggers (known as InvestEGGators) has successfully revealed local poaching activity in Costa Rica, whilst also highlighting the effectiveness of this novel technology for future use.
In today’s oceans sea turtles are faced with a long list of issues that pose a threat to their survival, such as plastic ingestion, loss of nesting sites, entanglement in fishing gear, collisions with boats and rising temperatures that skew sex ratios in their offspring. Unfortunately most of these issues are widespread and without an immediate solution. However one problem that conservationists are still confident of being able to tackle is poaching. Turtle eggs in particular have been a common target for wildlife poachers who can sell them for a high price thanks to their rumoured aphrodisiac properties. Historically this has been a hard practise to police because of how difficult it is to both prevent and track egg poaching activity. Thankfully a new technique using fake eggs that contain GPS loggers has been used to successfully track poaching activity in Costa Rica and could be set to help tackle the issue across the globe in the future.
The ingenious new method of tracking poaching activity with fake eggs was first conceived by conservation scientist Kim Williams-Guillén. She first created the InvestEGGator as part of the international Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge in 2015, but has since refined the design significanty. The basic premise for the product is very simple, create a hollowed out plastic egg with a GPS logger inside so that when poachers steel them you can see where they end up. However, the real challenge is making the fake eggs so similar to the real thing that the poachers can’t tell them apart from the real thing. “Making [the trackers] look like eggs from far away was not going to be an issue, it was more making them feel like turtle eggs” explained Williams-Guillén in a recent Smitsonian interview.
In order to re-create the leathery and pliable feel of sea turtle eggs, rather than the soft and squishy feel of a ping-pong ball, she decided to 3D-print the eggs out of a specialized plastic called NinjaFlex. With the addition of dimples and the mucus and sand covering the other eggs in the nest, the result was a fake egg that is surprisingly similar to the original, especially when you are a poacher fumbling around in the dark and taking hundreds of eggs at a time. Once the poachers have been successfully duped the GPS loggers in the eggs, capable of being pinpointed with an accuracy of up to 10 metres, can be tracked on a specialised smart phone app by researchers and conservationists.
Deploying the decoys
The InvestEGGators were recently tested for the first real time in Costa Rica, as part of a new study led by PhD student Helen Pheasey from Kent University in the UK. As part of the study her team placed imposter eggs into the nests of 101 turtles on four different beaches. To do this they simply waited for expectant mothers to lay their eggs in a nest and slipped in the decoy in before she covered them back up. This was actually surprisingly easy as sea turtles are slow moving and very tolerant of researchers whilst laying their eggs. Based on previous research carried out in the area the team expected that as many as 25% of the nests could potentially be targeted by poachers. All they had to do now was sit back and wait.
Tracking the poachers
As expected around a quarter of the InvestEGGators were stolen by poachers, unfortunately a large proportion of those either failed to connect with GPS or were identified and destroyed by the poachers. Luckily five of the eggs were able to successfully connect and track the movements made by poachers. Two of those eggs moved less than a mile from the nest site and another two remained in the local areas as well, either being sold to local bars or private residents. Whereas the other remaining egg travelled over 85 miles and allowed researchers to follow every step of the route, including a grocery store where they believe it changed hands part way through its journey. This is the type of thing the eggs were designed to be able to track and so proves that when successful they can be very effective. However, what is potentially more useful to know is that a majority of poaching was actually contained within the local area. Pheasey and her team, including Williams-Guillén, recently released their results in a new paper in the journal Current Biology.
Making a difference
Although the InvestEGGators were successful in locating the poachers who stole them and the people who they sold them too, nobody in possession of one were targeted by researchers or the local authorities. That is because rather than catch those responsible the idea behind projects like this is to better understand the trade network and how it operates. This may seem somewhat lenient, but it actually has a better chance of making a successful and long lasting impact. Rather than arresting a few poachers and alarming others to the presence of trackers, the researchers has instead learnt where the trade is strongest and as a result where to better aim conservation efforts.
The idea is to now role out educational projects in those areas to teach those responsible about the conservation implications of their actions and potentially provide alternative forms of income for them. Only by working in this way with local people, rather than against them, can a significant impact be made from this clever new technology. It is now hoped that similar studies can be carried out on nesting beaches across the globe and help solve the poaching problem for turtles and in turn alleviate a bit of pressure on these overwhelmed species.