The InvestEggator: the latest agent fighting wildlife crime

By Ben Mott

A young sea turtle makes her way across the sand |courtesy of Alfonso Navarro via Unisplash

Nestled in the soft sand of a Costa Rican beach are dozens and dozens of sea turtle eggs. Before long, the porcelain-like membrane will start to splinter as cracks decorate the surface, and the baby inside will stumble out. From the hundreds of eggs a breeding female will lay, only a handful of hatchlings will make it past their first birthday, largely due to predation by sea-birds and small mammals – and even crabs. The long, slow journey from nest to sea leaves younglings exposed on the beach.

However, one of those eggs will not face those challenges. Indistinguishable to the untrained eye, one is an impostor: inside the shell, it is not a turtle waiting to emerge, but rather a GPS tracker, hoping to remain hidden.

Conservation scientist Kim Williams-Guillen developed the InvestEggator (the name given to the decoy egg) with Nicaraguan NGO Paso Pacifico, drawing inspiration from popular TV shows such as The Wire and Breaking Bad. Multiple decoy eggs were planted in 101 nests at four beaches around the Costa Rican coast, and, despite some casualties, 5 successfully transmitted regularly, allowing the research team led by UKC PhD candidate Helen Pheasey to track the eggs to their ‘handover point’. A handover point marks a place along the trafficking route where the smuggled object passes from small-scale poachers to the middle-man, who then transports the object to the final destination.

Although one egg wound up 137km inland, the eggs generally remained in the local area, where Pheasey, co-author of the study, says they are consumed as street food, bar snacks, or even omelettes. “The country has a long-standing tradition of eating eggs, but they are of low monetary value and don’t fulfil a livelihood or protein requirement,” she added.

All seven species of sea turtle are endangered, some critically, like the Hawksbill turtle, and trading them is illegal. However, this study was carried out in Ostional, on Costa Rica’s pacific coast, where, in contrast to the rest of the nation, it is legal to trade the eggs of the Olive Ridley species – for a limited time. During the first 36 hours of the ‘arribada’ – the 5-day mass nesting event – eggs can be harvested from the beach, and then traded around the country. Beyond that period, it is illegal to do so.

This in-situ legal framework enables innovative approaches to be tried and tested before deployment in the fight against the illegal trade. There are also suggestions that within the legal trade, illegal products are being laundered. Exposing trade routes is therefore essential wherever possible to combat illegal trade.

Whilst preventing poaching is sometimes an effective short-term relief to illegal trade issues, focusing efforts on uncovering and dismantling trafficking networks is far more efficient. Poachers are driven, largely, by financial necessity, and as long as poverty and wealth disparity exist, poachers will too.

“Trafficking is a much more serious crime as it may be the case that larger volumes of eggs are moving to more distant locations. Being able to curtail this means there are opportunities to disrupt a larger trade,” Pheasey told InQuire.

According to Pheasey, this offers opportunities to focus demand reduction campaigns in the local area and prevent the illegal harvester from having a consumer base, thus easing the pressure on the species threatened with extinction. Sea turtles are under attack from numerous anthropogenic sources – most notably by-catch, where they are accidentally entangled in industrial fishing nets– so alleviating any of the pressures they face is a positive step in the fight for their future.

Beyond the initial success of this research, there is exciting potential for extrapolating the use of decoy eggs to other illegal wildlife trades. “The technology is now small enough to be hidden in a wide range of wildlife products,” Pheasey says. “The main thing is how to make the housing realistic enough to mimic that of the species in question and how to deploy the fake in amongst a batch of real items.”

One species which could benefit hugely from the InvestEggator is the South American hyacinth macaw, the largest flying parrot. As it is illegal to buy or sell wild-caught individuals, eggs are snatched from nests, before being flown to Europe where they are incubated and passed off as captive-bred. Resultantly, they enter the legal trade – where an individual can sell for as much as $15,000. Classed as ‘vulnerable’, their populations are decreasing: tracing the networks utilised in this damaging trade could be the key to dismantling it; the same goes for sea turtles and other oviparous (egg-laying) species threatened by illegal trade, who might just have been offered a lifeline.