Faking Out Poachers With 3-D-Printed Sea Turtle Eggs

Conservationists hope to track the black market in eggs by tricking traders with artificial ones that contain wireless transmitters.
(Photo: Paso Pacifico)
Mar 24, 2016
John R. Platt covers the environment, technology, philanthropy, and more for Scientific American, Conservation, Lion, and other publications.

They come by night and they steal the future.

Every year, poachers in Nicaragua and other countries wait for cover of darkness and then make their way onto the beaches where endangered sea turtles have just laid their eggs. Working quickly, they dig up the precious eggs—hundreds at a time—and disappear. Some of the eggs turn up a few days later, priced as low as 20 cents apiece in local bars. Others travel thousands of miles to the United States or China, where they can sell for upwards of $150 each.

Exactly how the stolen eggs get from a beach in Nicaragua to a restaurant in Hong Kong remains unknown, frustrating efforts to combat the black market trade. A new project hopes to solve that.

The nonprofit Paso Pacifico is in the process of developing an innovative fake egg to help conservationists better understand—and maybe stop—the illegal trade. The eggs will contain a GSM transmitter hidden inside a 3-D-printed shell made to look exactly like what poachers would find within a fresh sea turtle nest. The fakes, each the size of a ping-pong ball, will then be tracked over cellular networks along their smuggling routes to their final destinations.

3-D-printed sea turtle eggs with wireless transmitters. (Photo: Paso Pacifico)

The project was one of the winners of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, organized by U.S. Aid for International Development, National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution, and TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network. Paso Pacifico and its partners received $10,000 and technical support from the challenge, which they are now using to perfect the prototype.

“The plan is to start testing them [the transmitters] in the next nesting season, which will start in July,” said Eduardo Boné-Morón, Paso Pacifico’s managing director.

The first batch of fake eggs made their public premiere last week at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. Paso Pacifico is still identifying the best transmitters to use in the field and perfecting the 3-D-printed materials, which don’t quite look like real sea turtle eggs yet. Boné-Morón said the organization is working with an art studio near Hollywood to get the right color and texture for the next phase of the prototype.

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Once that is complete, the first fake eggs will be tested in Nicaragua a few months from now. “Our rangers will locate vulnerable active nests that are more likely to be poached, for example, nests that are closer to trails,” Boné-Morón said. They’ll uncover part of the nest, place an artificial egg inside, and then cover it back up. “We will plant as many eggs as possible in the beach to increase the possibility of poachers taking the artificial eggs.”

Boné-Morón said that once the transmitters are planted, they may reveal a great deal of information very quickly. Smuggling networks need to act fast to get their stolen goods to their final destination, as sea turtle eggs go bad in about 15 days. “If these guys have the capacity to send an egg from a beach in Central America to China in 15 days, it’s a well-structured network,” he said. The eggs probably go through several middlemen along the way, and hopefully the technology will illuminate each step in the process.

The very existence of the fake eggs may even serve to deter some poaching from happening in the first place. “Eventually the poachers will learn there is something wrong with the beaches,” Boné-Morón said. “That is totally fine with us. The reason they’re poaching right now is because it’s so easy. If they see that we’re watching them, we may be able to discourage them.”

After the first tests of the transmitters, Boné-Morón said he hopes use of the fake eggs can be expanded wherever sea turtles lay their eggs. “We want to have eggs that are cheap enough that any nonprofit or any government agency can buy them and plant them on the beaches all over the world,” he said. 

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