Researchers use high-tech sea turtle eggs to track poachers

sunset-69600_1920.jpg

An olive ridley sea turtle hauls herself onto a beach in Costa Rica. Poachers prize sea turtle eggs, which can be sold for up to $300 a piece on the black market.

By Orion McCarthy

UNDER the faint glow of twilight, a sea turtle deposits a new generation of eggs in the cold sand. She has just completed an epic journey against all odds, travelling thousands of miles back to the very beach where she was born. After burying her clutch of eggs, she slowly ambles through the sand and slips back into the surf.

Moments later the dark tranquility of the beach is pierced by voices, the sound soon accompanied by a pair of shadowy silhouettes. As they scamper across the beach, the dark figures survey the sand for signs of disturbance.

They stop.

Knowing what lies beneath the surface, one poacher crouches down and begins to dig. The other holds a large burlap sack. After several minutes of pilfering, they slip back into the night with a sack full of golf ball-sized eggs, leaving nothing behind but a sandy hole.

sea-turtles-1503461_1280.jpg

Six of the world’s seven sea turtle species are listed as threatened by the IUCN.

This scenario plays out across an untold number of beaches around the world. In addition to poaching, sea turtles face threats from fisheries, climate change, boat strikes, tourists, and development. As a result, six of the world’s seven sea turtle species are listed as threatened by the IUCN.

Conservationists know that illegally harvested sea turtle eggs, prized as a delicacy and aphrodisiac, are ultimately destined for Central America and Asia where they fetch up to $300 a piece on the black market. But without knowledge of the exact routes used by smugglers, law enforcement officials have struggled to stop the flow of eggs.

That may change soon. The conservation group Paso Pacífico is working to develop fake sea turtle eggs equipped with tracking devices to pinpoint illegal trade routes. Roughly the size of a golf ball, Paso Pacífico’s decoy eggs are 3D printed using a polyurethane-based filament, fitted with a GPS or Bluetooth tracker, and sealed with waterproof silicone. Depending on the tracking technology used, the decoy eggs can be tracked for up to a year.

With the help of a Hollywood prop artist, the team is currently perfecting the final design of their decoy egg prototype, the InvestEGGator, to make it’s texture and appearance as realistic as possible. Sea turtle eggs are soft and pliable, not rigid and brittle like bird eggs. To trick unsuspecting poachers, Paso Pacífico’s prototype will need to mimic the real deal.

Paso Pacífico is still testing their prototype. Once complete, they intend to hide as many InvestEGGators as possible in existing sea turtle nests. Since most poachers raid nests at night and work rapidly to avoid detection by armed beach guards, Paso Pacífico’s scientists believe that smugglers will readily poach their decoy eggs along with real sea turtle eggs. Once their decoys infiltrate the black market, Paso Pacífico will be able to identify trade routes used by egg smugglers. This data will enable law enforcement to take more informed steps to address the trade.

Paso Pacífico was awarded $10,000 to develop their decoy eggs as part of USAID’s Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge. By harnessing creative thinking and innovation, the challenge encourages teams to develop high tech solutions to end wildlife trafficking. Other Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge projects focus on forensic science, corruption, and reducing consumer demand for wildlife products.

eduardo-bone

Prototype decoy sea turtle eggs created by Paso Pacífico as part of USAID’s Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge. The challenge, supported by National Geographic, the Smithsonian, and TRAFFIC, represents one component of USAID’s efforts to support the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. Photo credit: Eduardo Bone.

Using technology to tackle the illegal wildlife trade

The illegal wildlife trade is the fourth largest black market worldwide after drugs, weapons and human trafficking. In addition to sea turtle eggs, wildlife products such as ivory, rhino horn, shark fins, pangolin scales, timber and exotic pets are illegally traded in global black markets. This massive black market generates $19 billion each year, roughly the same as the annual earnings of Starbucks, Southwest Airlines, and Facebook.

To effectively combat such an extensive black market, scientists must monitor the movement patterns of poachers, smugglers, and endangered species to identify wildlife crime hotspots and smuggling routes. Once these key areas are identified, conservationists, wildlife rangers, and policy makers can target their anti-poaching efforts towards hotspots to maximize the impact of limited conservation resources.

Technology has empowered scientists and law enforcement to take these key steps in new and innovative ways.

Tracking devices offer the potential to study animal movement, poaching, and smuggling patterns. While Paso Pacífico’s artificial eggs use GPS technology to detect smuggling patterns, other types of technology have been deployed as well, including forensics and DNA tracking. By cross referencing DNA extracted from elephant dung with seized illegal ivory, researchers from the University of Washington are able to identify elephant populations that are targeted disproportionately by poachers. Similar forensics techniques are being used in Central America to track the exotic pet trade in macaws and red eyed tree frogs and prosecute criminals.

In addition to tracking smuggling routes, law enforcement use camera traps, drones, and even satellites to monitor illegal activity in remote environments where poachers thrive. At the University of Maryland, researchers are using drones and advanced algorithms to develop real time models of poaching and animal behavior in Africa and Asia, allowing them to predict poaching events before they unfold. To address wildlife crime in the ocean, Google, Oceana, and Skytruth launched an algorithm called Global Fishing Watch that uses satellites to detect illegal fishing activity. Both technologies are capable of providing real time updates to law enforcement. When these and similar technologies are utilized by law enforcement, they increase the likelihood of successful seizures and arrests.

These advances in tracking and monitoring would have been unthinkable more than a decade ago. More than any other part of the conservation field, technological innovation has been a game changer in the struggle to control the illegal wildlife trade. Continued innovation is essential to give wildlife a fighting chance.

What YOU can do

Innovation has generated a growing assortment of tools for conservationists, researchers, and law enforcement to crack down on poachers. But technology, the Internet, and social media have also paved the way for ordinary citizens to take an active stance against the illegal wildlife trade. From whistleblowing to citizen science, the following tools allow anyone to become part of the global movement to end wildlife crime.

WildLeaks – Featured prominently in the Netflix documentary The Ivory Game, the whistleblower initiative WildLeaks provides users with a safe place to report wildlife crime online. Anyone with knowledge of wildlife and forest crimes can upload documents, video, or photographic evidence to WildLeak’s website anonymously using an encrypted connection. WildLeaks has investigated anonymous tips about advertisements for rhino horn in Cameroon, illegal trophy hunting in South Africa, and ivory seizures in Hong Kong, among others. In addition to WildLeaks, apps like Wildlife Witness and WildScan also allow users to report suspected instances of wildlife crime.

wildlife-tech-resources

From left to right, WildLeaks, Wildlife Witness, and WildScan are resources available to the general public for reporting wildlife crime.

Tank Watch – Few people realize that 98% of fish seen in saltwater tanks are sourced unsustainably from the wild. The app Tank Watch, dubbed the “Good Fish/Bad Fish tool for saltwater aquariums”, allows users to discern between captive bred and wild caught fish at the pet store. The app aims to reduce consumer demand for coral reef wildlife, which has caused populations of targeted fish and coral species to decline by up to 97% on certain reefs. While some wild caught fish are legally sourced, the international pet trade is a major driver of biodiversity loss around the world and is often entangled with the illegal wildlife trade.

coral-reef-tank

The app Tank Watch allows users to discern between captive bred and wild caught fish for saltwater aquariums. The exotic pet trade is a major driver of biodiversity loss around the world and is often entangled with the illegal wildlife trade.

Wildlife Trade HealthMap – Speaking up against wildlife crime can be as simple as sharing a news story about wildlife contraband or a poaching arrest to the Wildlife Trade HealthMap. First conceived to track the global spread of diseases, the HealthMap uses an algorithm to mine the web for news articles about disease outbreaks and wildlife crime, then displays the location of those stories on an interactive map. Users can also upload articles to the map manually to capture news stories missed by the algorithm. Researchers use HealthMap to identify wildlife trade hotspots and target conservation resources. By entering the URL and location of a news story on the Wildlife Trade HealthMap, you help to build a comprehensive picture of the global wildlife trade for researchers working to protect wildlife and crack down on corruption.

wildlife-trade-healthmap

Using data from the Wildlife Trade HealthMap to visualize the illegal wildlife trade, researchers were able to identify six “major player” countries in the global markets for ivory, rhino horn, and tiger products. The diagram above illustrates how global markets for rhino horn would be disrupted if trade were shut down in six key countries: Vietnam, South Africa, China, Mozambique, Thailand, and the UK. Photo credit: Patel et al, 2015.

LEARN MORE
Sign up icon

Like what you read? Sign up below to get new Conserve posts sent to your inbox

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: