Research led by conservationists at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) and Paso Pacifico in Costa Rica has found that it is possible to gather evidence on the illegal trade of sea turtles by placing 3D-printed, GPS-enabled decoy turtle eggs into nests vulnerable to illegal harvest.
With the aim of uncovering trade routes of trafficked sea turtle eggs in Costa Rica, the study, which has been published in Current Biology, found it was possible to track illegally removed eggs from beach to end consumer, identifying an entire trade chain covering 137 kilometres.
The InvestEGGator decoys were developed by the conservation organisation Paso Pacifico to address the illegal trade of endangered sea turtles in Central America, where the eggs are smuggled from beaches to be consumed as seasonal snacks. Paso Pacifico-affiliated scientist Kim Williams-Guillen conceived and designed the decoys with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge.
The field study, led by Helen Pheasey alongside Dr David Roberts and Professor Richard Griffiths of DICE and fellow international colleagues, aimed to test the capabilities of the decoy eggs and ensure they did not harm the incubating turtle embryos.
The 3D-printed decoys were placed in 101 turtle nests on four beaches in Costa Rica. A quarter of the fake eggs were taken illegally from the nests, allowing the researchers to track eggs from five clutches, including two green turtle nests and three olive ridley nests. They found that most stolen eggs did not leave the local area beyond 137 kilometres.
Helen Pheasey said: ‘Knowing that a high proportion of eggs remain in the local area helps us target our conservation efforts. 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. It would be great to see more sea turtle projects use the decoys on their nesting beaches. Such efforts could shed light on differences in the turtle egg trade in different countries.’
Their research paper ‘Using GPS enabled decoy turtle eggs to track illegal trade’ is published in Current Biology. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.08.065