An experiment to track turtle egg poachers by planting synthetic eggs equipped with GPS trackers in Costa Rica has offered a seductive new approach to fighting wildlife trafficking, but now faces the challenge of scaling up.
Turtle egg decoys were placed in 101 nests in four locations around Costa Rica among other nests of green and olive ridley turtle eggs. Around 25 percent of them were stolen and tracked as they passed from egg hunters to traffickers and even to final consumers, according to an October report published in Current Biology magazine.
Early results suggested the eggs were not traveling far from the beaches. One of the decoy eggs was delivered to a nearby residential area, another was found at a bar just two kilometers away while the rest moved inland but no further than 130 kilometers.
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According to Sarah Otterstrom, executive director of Paso Pacífico, the non-governmental organization that developed the project, the final consumers of the turtle eggs were largely located in cities around Costa Rica. Interviews carried out by Paso Pacífico also revealed that some of the eggs were being sold door-to-door.
"The decoys, named InvestEGGator, were equipped with GPS trackers and SIM cards along with technology developed by a Chinese firm, ReachFar. The information sent from the eggs could be traced through cell towers," Otterstrom told InSight Crime.
“The biggest challenge was secretly setting the eggs in nests that were likely to get stolen by poachers. This is sometimes difficult to predict. A memorable moment was watching the movement of sea turtle nest eggs from the computer, and realizing they had moved from the coast to a market in San José, Costa Rica, and then onto a residential neighborhood," Otterstrom told ZME Science in a separate interview.
"This documents the entire illegal market chain, and also pinpoints potential points of sale. Law enforcement and the government could use this tool in the future," she added.
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The trafficking of turtle eggs has become a real blight across the region, with tens of thousands of eggs being stolen in Mexico, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica, among others, during the coronavirus pandemic.
It was no surprise that placing trackers inside fake turtle eggs, an idea allegedly inspired by the HBO television series "The Wire," received so much international media coverage earlier this year.
But Paso Pacífico has been keen to manage expectations. The Costa Rica investigation did not lead to any arrests, for example, but this is just the first step, according to Otterstrom. At least one other unspecified Latin American country has been in touch about using the technology, she confirmed. Researchers are keen to deploy the InvestEGGators as part of broader alliances with environmental authorities that are able to take action based on the data collected.
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Certainly, efforts to crack down on turtle egg trafficking have been lackluster so far. While Mexico claims to protect millions of sea turtles laying eggs every year, arrests are not proving effective. "It is frustrating to see authorities do not go beyond arresting egg hunters, who often live in poverty and have few other options to make a living," she told InSight Crime.
Paso Pacífico also faced problems in implementing its innovative solution, including difficulties with obtaining the permits needed to start their investigation. Costa Rica was ultimately the only country to grant them permission to do so.