The trade in endangered turtle shells and meat is illegal, but that hasn’t stopped traffickers from smuggling turtle eggs from beaches and selling them to restaurants as delicacies. Now, a conservation group is trying to create a way to expose traffickers and stop them. In a study published in Current Biology, 3D-printed “bait eggs” with GPS tracking could be used to track transmission and isolate the main offender. The baited eggs, made by conservation group Paso Pacifico, were designed to be presented to usaID for the Wildlife Crime Prevention Technology Challenge.
Kim Williams-Guillen, a Paso Pacifico affiliate who designed the fake turtle eggs from her favorite crime TV show, said: “In Breaking Bad, the DEA placed a GPS tracking device on the chemical canister to see who was receiving the chemicals, and in an episode of Wiretapping, two police officers installed an audio device in a tennis ball to steal a suspected drug dealer. Turtle eggs basically look like ping-pong balls, we want to know where they’re going, put these two ideas together, and you have a fake turtle egg called InvestEGGator. “
Helen Pheasey, lead author of the study, said: “Our study shows that illegal theft of tortoise eggs from the beach to the end consumer is traceable, and our longest tracking study shows that the entire trade chain is 137km long. Pheasey also confirmed that putting fake turtle egg baits in turtle nests did not damage the embryos that were hatching, ensuring that tracking could be done without risk.
To confirm further, the team tested the baits at the site and placed fake turtle eggs in turtle nests in Costa Rica. A quarter of the fake eggs were illegally removed, allowing researchers to track their whereabouts. Although some of the eggs only went to nearby bars and residential areas, one went nearly 137 kilometers (85 miles) inland.
But while this is a strong start, the technology is far from the only solution, according to Williams-Guillen. It must indeed be used in a multi-pronged approach to conservation, using education, better economic opportunities and law enforcement to help combat poaching of turtle eggs.