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GPS-tracking, 3D-printed decoy eggs can help root out illegal poachers

Poachers pose a major threat to sea turtle nests by stealing eggs to sell in what has become a rampant black market trade in certain parts of the world. Conservation efforts to stop this have, to date, included patrolling beaches for would-be poachers, as well as removing the eggs and placing them in a secure hatchery so that they can be incubated in safety.

Conservationists at the nonprofit organization Paso Pacifico in Nicaragua and researchers from the U.K.’s University of Kent have another idea, however — and it involves 3D-printed decoy eggs, boasting built-in GPS trackers.

While that might sound an unnecessarily over-engineered solution to the problem, in fact, it could help to change the calculus with which this kind of egg poaching is addressed by making it a more proactive, less reactive, solution.

“If we can be proactive we’ve got a bigger chance of dealing with the problem,” Helen Pheasey, a Ph.D. student in Conservation Biology at the University of Kent, told Digital Trends. “If people are actually trafficking the eggs inland, then that’s something that we can really start to look at [solving in a more permanent way.] That’s a bigger crime in a lot of respects, and that’s what we’re trying to address with these decoys.”

Decoy turtle eggs
University of Kent

Like Find My iPhone for poachers

The decoy eggs are called InvestEggator (the name might be amusingly groan-worthy, but it’s most definitely all in a good cause.) Working a bit like a Find My iPhone tracker to fight poachers, the idea is that law enforcement would be able to track where the eggs are taken to, and this data could then be admissible in court.

In a recent proof-of-concept test case, Pheasey and her team deployed the “eggs” by walking beaches and placing them within the vicinity of a laying turtle. “Turtles lay about 100 to 120 eggs depending on the species, so it’s quite easy to sneak one of these decoys in with the eggs [without them being noticed,]” Pheasey said.

A quarter of the fake eggs they deployed were taken, and they were able to track these using location signals that were sent each hour. While most remained in the local area, one was taken further afield and helped to identify a trade chain.

In the future, Pheasey said similar technology could help other hunted species as well. “As the technology gets smaller, and more innovations become available to us, we can start putting [similar technology] in housing that would be appropriate for other species — for example, parrot eggs or shark fins,” she said. “The limitations aren’t so much the technology anymore as they are the housing and deployment. [Going forward, we believe that] there are lots of opportunities for this kind of project.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Current Biology.

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