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Scientists use decoys to track sea turtle egg traffickers

In a new study published by Cell Press, scientists are helping to expose sea turtle traffickers by placing GPS-enabled decoy eggs in nests on the beach. The researchers set out to investigate how well the decoy eggs work in tracking down the criminals, as well as how safe they are for the turtles.

“Our research showed that placing a decoy into a turtle nest did not damage the incubating embryos and that the decoys work,” said study lead author Helen Pheasey of the University of Kent. “We showed that it was possible to track illegally removed eggs from beach to end consumer as shown by our longest track, which identified the entire trade chain covering 137 kilometers.”

The egg decoy project, which is called InvestEggator, was developed by the conservation organization Paso Pacifico to address the illegal trade of endangered sea turtles in Central America. The eggs are smuggled from the beaches and sold to restaurants and bars as a delicacy. 

Kim Williams-Guillen is a scientist with Paso Pacifico who designed the decoys in response to a call for proposals from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge. 

“The idea was kind of an ‘Aha’ moment,” said Williams-Guillen. She said that two of her favorite TV shows came to mind, Breaking Bad and The Wire. “In Breaking Bad, the DEA places a GPS tracking device on a tank of chemicals to see who receives the chemicals. In one episode of the Wire, two police officers plant an audio device in a tennis ball to surreptitiously record a suspected drug dealer. Turtle eggs basically look like ping pong balls, and we wanted to know where they were going–put those two ideas together and you have the InvestEGGator.”

Pheasey’s team placed the 3D-printed decoy eggs in 101 turtle nests on four beaches in Costa Rica. A quarter of the eggs were snatched from the nests, which allowed the researchers to track eggs from five clutches – two green turtle nests and three olive ridley nests.

One of the decoys was approaching a residential property when it fell silent, while another traveled two kilometers to a bar. The egg that was moved the farthest ended up 137 kilometers inland, spending two days in transit from the beach to a supermarket loading-bay and then on to a residential property. 

In one instance, someone discovered the decoy. “One decoy went off-line in a residential area near Cariari, a town 43 km from the deployment beach,” wrote the researchers. “After 11 days, we received photographs, sent from Cariari, of the dissected egg.”

Along with the photos, the experts obtained information about where the egg was purchased and how many eggs had been exchanged. According to the study authors, the findings show that the decoy eggs already are yielding intelligence from the local community in addition to tracking data.

Pheasey said the early evidence shows that the majority of stolen eggs don’t leave the local area, which confirmed what they had suspected. “Knowing that a high proportion of eggs remain in the local area helps us target our conservation efforts,” said Pheasey. “We can now focus our efforts on raising awareness in the local communities and direct law enforcement to this local issue. It also means we know where the consumers are, which assists us in focusing demand reduction campaigns.”

Pheasey explained that the key objective is not to find the people who take the eggs from the beach. The ultimate goal is to identify the traffickers, who often sell the eggs door to door. “As trafficking is a more serious crime, those handover points are far more valuable from a law enforcement perspective than catching someone taking a nest,” said Pheasey.

The researchers would like to see more sea turtle projects use the decoys on nesting beaches. This research could reveal important clues about the turtle egg trade in different countries. 

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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