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AI May Help Save Endangered Turtles via GPS Tracking “Eggs”

InvestEGGator “eggs” look real but they conceal GPS trackers, which could identify turtle egg smugglers

It’s an ingenious idea; too bad no one thought of it earlier: Place GPS-enabled decoy sea turtle eggs into nests on the beach and see where a smuggler takes them:

The egg decoys, dubbed InvestEggator, were developed by the conservation organization Paso Pacifico to address the illegal trade of endangered sea turtles in Central America, where the eggs are smuggled from beaches and sold to restaurants and bars as a delicacy. Paso Pacifico-affiliated scientist Kim Williams-Guillen conceived and designed the decoys in response to a call for proposals from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge.

Cell Press, “Tracking sea turtle egg traffickers with GPS-enabled decoy eggs” at ScienceDaily The paper is open access.

Williams-Guillen got the idea from TV shows, Breaking Bad and The Wire. In The Wire, the GPS unit is hidden in a tennis ball. She recalls, “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.””

The decoy eggs that the researchers placed in nests on four beaches in Costa Rica did not disturb the developing embryos inside the real eggs. Using information transmitted by the decoys among the stolen clutches, the researchers identified an entire illegal trade chain in endangered turtle eggs, including one that stretched 137 kilometres (85 miles).

In their paper, the researchers describe their methods and what they learned in more detail:

In our efforts to uncover trade routes of trafficked sea turtle eggs, we developed and field-tested the InvestEGGator, a 3D-printed decoy turtle egg embedded with a GPS–GSM transmitter (Supplemental Information). Illegally collected clutches of turtle eggs containing a decoy transmitter enabled us to track the movements of traffickers, and thus gain a better understanding of illegal trade routes. The decoys, set to emit a signal once an hour, provided five tracks, the most detailed of which identified an entire trade chain, covering 137 km. Using data provided by the decoys, we identified trafficking routes and on two occasions properties of potential interest to law enforcement. Decoys also yielded anecdotal information, furthering our understanding of trafficking routes.

We deployed one decoy per nest in 101 turtle nests on four beaches in Costa Rica, of which 25% were illegally taken (Supplemental Information). The decoys tracked eggs from five illegally removed clutches (two green turtle, Chelonia mydas, three olive ridley, Lepidochelys olivacea; Figure 1). Our shortest track emitted its final signal 28 m from a residential property, while another travelled 2 km to a bar. Our furthest moving decoy travelled 137 km inland identifying a near-complete trade chain; spending two days in transit from beach to a supermarket loading-bay in the Central Valley, it transmitted a final signal from a residential property the following day (Figure 1F). Given that mobile vendors sell eggs door-to-door in Costa Rica, the supermarket was a likely handover point between trafficker and salesperson.

Helen Pheasey, David L. Roberts, Daniela Rojas-Cañizales, Carmen Mejías-Balsalobre, Richard A. Griffiths, Kim Williams-Guillen. Using GPS-enabled decoy turtle eggs to track illegal trade. Current Biology, 2020; 30 (19): R1066 DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.08.065

Paso Pacific hopes to use adapted versions of the decoys to track the theft of eggs from parrot nests as well.


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AI May Help Save Endangered Turtles via GPS Tracking “Eggs”