AI may help save “eggs” from endangered turtles utilizing GPS monitoring

It’s a brilliant idea; Too bad no one thought of it before: put GPS-enabled decoy sea turtle eggs in nests on the beach and see where a smuggler takes them:

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

Cell Press, “Tracking Sea Turtle Egg Traders with GPS-Enabled Decoys” at ScienceDaily The paper is openly accessible.

Williams-Guillen came up with the idea of ​​TV shows, Breaking Bad and The Wire. In The Wire, the GPS device is hidden in a tennis ball. She recalls, “Turtle eggs basically look like ping-pong balls, and we wanted to know where they are going – put those two ideas together and you have the InvestEGGator.”

The decoys that the researchers laid in nests on four beaches in Costa Rica did not disturb the developing embryos in the real eggs. Using information transmitted by the bait between the stolen clutches, the researchers identified an entire illicit chain of endangered turtle eggs, including one that stretched 137 kilometers.

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

In order to uncover the trade routes for traded sea turtle eggs, we developed and field-tested the InvestEGGator, a 3D-printed decoy egg embedded in a GPS-GSM transmitter (additional information). By illegally collected clutches of turtle eggs that contained a decoy transmitter, we were able to follow the movements of human traffickers and thus better understand the illegal trade routes. The decoys, which were supposed to send a signal once an hour, provided five tracks, the most detailed of which identified an entire chain of stores with a length of 137 km. Using the data provided by the bait, we identified trade routes and twice properties that are of potential law enforcement interest. Decoys also provided anecdotal information that helps our understanding of trade routes.

We used one bait per nest in 101 turtle nests on four beaches in Costa Rica, 25% of which were caught illegally (additional information). The bait tracked eggs from five illegally removed catches (two green turtles, Chelonia mydas, three olive ridley, Lepidochelys olivacea; Figure 1). Our shortest route gave its final signal 28 meters from a residential lot while another drove 2 km to a bar. Our furthest-moving bait traveled 137 km inland and identified a near-complete chain of stores. On the way from the beach to a supermarket loading bay in the Central Valley, one final signal was sent 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 the trafficker and seller.

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 the illegal trade. Current Biology, 2020; 30 (19): R1066 DOI: 10.1016 / j.cub.2020.08.065

Paso Pacific hopes to use customized versions of the bait to track egg thefts from parrot nests as well.

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