High-Tech Turtle Eggs Supply Intel on Wildlife Traffickers

GPS device cunningly disguised as a turtle egg assists conservationists

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The lifecycle of a sea turtle starts with a frantic scramble for the surf and a swimming frenzy. If the hatchling is lucky, it will elude hungry predators and escape to deeper waters, eventually growing to maturity over two or three decades. If the turtle is female, she will one day return to the beach where her journey began, crawl ashore, lay eggs and complete the circle of life.

Fewer than one in a thousand turtles survive to adulthood, and their slow rate of maturation is one reason why conservationists are focused on protecting their nests. For any eggs that are removed today, the impact on turtle populations will not be apparent for another 20 to 25 years. 

Hatchlings orientate towards the sea. Very few will survive to adulthood. (Credit: Paso Pacífico)

Six species of turtle frequent the shores of Central America, and their eggs have long been trafficked. Most are sold locally and consumed as bar snacks, seasonal soups or supposed aphrodisiacs. Poaching varies from beach to beach, but according to Paso Pacífico, an NGO working to conserve biodiversity in Nicaragua and El Salvador, egg thieves often destroy more than 90% of nests in unprotected areas. 

Beach patrols and youth education programs are some of the tools that conservationists have been using to turn the tide on traffickers. And now, thanks to Paso Pacífico, they have another weapon in their armory – the InvestEGGator, a GPS device cunningly disguised as a turtle egg. 

A hatchling in nearshore waters. (Credit: Hal Brindley)

Invented by Dr. Kim Williams-Guillén, a Paso Pacífico conservation scientist, the InvestEGGator is almost a case of life imitating art. She told The Oxygen Project, “One day I was just out and about and had an ‘a-ha’ moment of the trackers in the turtle eggs. And as soon as I had the idea, it made me think of a couple of different TV shows that deal with drug trafficking and that have used surveillance technology.”

In one of them, The Wire, the police conceal a listening device inside a tennis ball. In another, Breaking Bad, the DEA hides a tracker on a chemical barrel.

Designing the investEGGator was a long iterative process, explained Williams-Guillén. For the shell, she experimented with silicon before settling on ninjaflex – a flexible plastic used in 3D printing. For the tracker, she sought out the smallest consumer-grade GPS transmitter that would fit inside.  

The finished invention won a $10,000 prize in USAID’s 2016 Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge. However, it did not undergo a proper field test until Dr. Helen Pheasey of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology in the UK got in touch.

“We were never able to deploy [the eggs] in Nicaragua because the government did not want us to,” explained Williams-Guillén. “I don’t think they were too keen on a US-based non-profit coming in and deploying surveillance technology. But Helen [Pheasey] heard about the project and approached us about using it in Costa Rica. And the government there was much more receptive.”

Pheasey, who completed a Ph.D. on turtle conservation in Costa Rica, published the results of her proof-of-concept experiment in Current Biology in October 2020. She deployed 101 decoy eggs on four beaches. She then monitored their positions with a phone app. 

“You put a local SIM card into the eggs and then you literally text message the eggs to set them up and link them to your smartphone,” said Pheasey. “I chose to have the eggs giving a [GPS] signal every hour.”

Every egg contains a GPS-GSM transmitter, a sim card port, and a rechargeable battery pack (Credit: Helen Pheasey)

Roughly a quarter of the decoy eggs were snatched by poachers. Some were discarded on the beach. Others malfunctioned. Others lacked enough cell phone coverage. But a small handful successfully provided tracking data. 

The shortest track led to a residential property 28 metres from the raided nest. Another egg ended up in a dingy local bar. Another arrived in the steamy banana town of Cariari, 43 kilometres away. But the most significant egg travelled 137 km inland to Costa Rica’s densely populated Central Valley, the country’s urban heartland.

“That was the egg that proved the concept,” said Pheasey. “It just kept moving and moving and moving… It just went inland, inland, inland for ages. And then it just stopped.”

At that point, Pheasey used a Google Maps satellite image to zoom in on the egg’s location. The data was particularly precise because the tracker was in a built-up area with strong cell phone coverage. In fact, it was in the vicinity of a supermarket loading bay.

“It was behind the supermarket in a dodgy back alley,” said Pheasey. “There’s no reason to be there unless you’re doing something suspicious!”

The next day, the egg emitted its final signal in a residential property, concluding what appeared to be a complete illicit supply chain.

“We’ve got the whole trade chain,” said Pheasey. “Someone’s definitely removed [the egg] from the beach. The fact that there’s been a time lag suggests that it might have been handed over to a trafficker. From what we know about the poachers in those areas, there’s a very real chance that they don’t have transport themselves. So we don’t know for sure, but we’re pretty confident that it’s been handed over to a trafficker who’s taken it inland and met someone in a dodgy back alley, who has then sold [the eggs] door to door.”

Beyond her study, Pheasey thinks the eggs could have a future role in law enforcement. In fact, Costa Rica has strict laws protecting turtles, but the police often lack the resources to enforce them. Decoy eggs could one day help monitoring projects to gather intelligence on trafficking patterns and organised crime networks. 

3D-printed decoys are indistinguishable from real turtle eggs. (Credit: Helen Pheasey)

“We’re not actually looking to try and get the guys taking the eggs out of the beach,” said Pheasey. “We already know who they are. What we’re more interested in are the traffickers who are doing a larger scale of trafficking.”  

Meanwhile, decoy eggs might soon be developed for other kinds of animals, including reptiles and birds.

“The next closest animal would be crocodiles,” said Pheasey. “But, obviously, you’ve got to have a very different kind of strategy to deploy them in a crocodile nest. Turtles just dump their eggs and go. They’re not in the slightest bit dangerous.”

Crocodiles guard their nests and nurture their hatchlings until they are big enough to fend for themselves, so anyone hoping to slip a decoy egg into their clutches risks losing their fingers or more!

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