Conservationists have been putting technology to good use, creating artificial eggs with wireless transmitters that can trick and track black market traders.
Each year, hundreds of eggs from endangered sea turtles are dug up from the beaches of Nicaragua and other countries and carted off to restaurants across the globe. Each egg can be sold anywhere from 20 cents at local bars to $150 apiece in the US or China, where the eggs are seen as rare delicacies. However, the process by which these eggs wind up on the black market is still murky, giving rise to nonprofit group Paso Pacifico’s new plan to shed light on the eggs’ journey.
Using 3-D printing technology, the organization is developing fake sea turtle eggs, each the size of a ping-pong ball, containing GSM transmitters which will track egg-smuggling routes across the globe. This innovative idea won the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, sponsored by U.S. Aid for International Development, National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC. Paso Pacifico and its partners were awarded tech support along with $10,000 to bring the concept to fruition. “The plan is to start testing them in the next nesting season, which will start in July,” said Eduardo Boné-Morón, the organization’s managing director.
Right now, a few improvements are still needed. Though initial prototypes were revealed at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, Paso Pacifico is still seeking out the best quality transmitters and is working with an art studio near Hollywood to perfect the shell’s texture and color. The eggs will then be placed in Nicaragua to test their success in tricking poachers. Said Boné-Morón of the plan’s next phase: “Our rangers will locate vulnerable active nests that are more likely to be poached, for example, nests that are closer to trails. We will plant as many eggs as possible in the beach to increase the possibility of poachers taking the artificial eggs.”
Because the smugglers have to transport their precious goods immediately after poaching (the eggs spoil within 15 days), the tracker eggs may quickly reveal a wide web of illicit trade networks. “If these guys have the capacity to send an egg from a beach in Central America to China in 15 days, it’s a well-structured network,” Boné-Morón said. He believes the eggs may implicate several rounds of middlemen passing the eggs along, as well as the initial poachers. He also hopes that some smugglers may be deterred by the knowledge that some eggs could be bugged: “Eventually the poachers will learn there is something wrong with the beaches. That is totally fine with us. The reason they’re poaching right now is because it’s so easy. If they see that we’re watching them, we may be able to discourage them.”
Once development and successful testing has been carried out, Boné-Morón wants to expand the use of artificial eggs to wherever sea turtles lay their eggs around the globe. “We want to have eggs that are cheap enough that any nonprofit or any government agency can buy them and plant them on the beaches all over the world,” he said.
Source: Platt, John R. “Faking Out Poachers With 3-D-Printed Sea Turtle Eggs. ” Takepart, 24 March 2016.