Sea turtles are threatened with extinction and the international trade of sea turtle products is restricted through CITES Appendix I. In Central America, sea turtle eggs are trafficked at the regional level and yet, little is known about the transit routes and final destinations of these restricted wildlife products. We propose to construct artificial sea turtle eggs that will house GSM-GPS tracking devices.
These artificial eggs will be placed in nests that are at high risk to poaching.
After the natural and artificial eggs are extracted from a nest, their movements will be monitored and mapped. Identifying major transit routes for sea turtle eggs will provide vital information to government authorities and civil society for combating the illegal egg trade.
Combating wildlife poaching requires a complex, systems-based approach; cultural beliefs, economies in habitat and destination countries, transportation infrastructure, life history traits, habitat threats, efficacy of law enforcement, and trade routes all interact to affect how devastating a given wildlife trade is on its target species.
Sea turtles have swum the earth's oceans for over 100 million years (Spotila, 2004), but now this ancient lineage is in danger of disappearing forever. Six of the seven extant species of sea turtles are threatened with extinction (Lewison, Freeman, & Crowder, 2004). One of the gravest threats comes from poaching: adults are killed for meat and their shells, and their nests are destroyed for the eggs, considered a delicacy and aphrodisiac in many regions (Spotila, 2004). Egg poaching has devastating effects on sea turtle populations (Tomillo, Saba, & Piedra, 2008), and protecting sea turtle nests from poaching can reverse population declines (Hamann et al., 2010).
Sea turtle products now comprise the second most frequently trafficked wildlife products smuggled from Latin America to the United States (Goyenechea & Indenbaum, 2015); most seized items originate in Mexico or Central America, and eggs comprise a quarter of illegal imports. This trade is devastating to turtle populations: a single shipment of nearly 1,000 turtle eggs recently intercepted
at the Mexico/U.S. border represented nearly 5% of the year's total egg production for the beach from which they were poached (Pierson, 2016).
Although the illegal trade in sea turtle products is not as high profile as that affecting African megafauna, this trade could explode as commercial ties between Central America and Asia grow (Lohmuller, 2015). The financial incentive is overwhelming, as a single turtle egg can command $100-300 USD on the international market (Barboza, 2016). While the initial poachers may be impoverished local community members or small gangs, as eggs make their way to middlemen trafficking towards regional and international markets, there is increasing potential to enter and reinforce networks dedicated to drug and human trafficking. As with these criminal enterprises, the trade in illegal wildlife relies on transportation infrastructure, storage facilities, and connections to corrupt business and government officials. Thus, striking a blow at the trade in sea turtle products potentially disrupts networks dedicated to nefarious and politically destabilizing criminal activities.
The InvestEGGator is a wildlife-tracking product designed to document the movement of illegally harvested sea turtles, overcoming these problems and providing a first glimpse into a burgeoning wildlife trade shrouded in secrecy. The InvestEGGator is a low-cost dummy turtle egg with an internally embedded tracker. It replicates the appearance, weight, and feel of a real turtle egg, is easily deployed at low risk to investigators, can be programmed and monitored remotely using web-based and smartphone applications, and is low cost, allowing for deployment of many units at once.
The goal of the InvestEGGator project is to deter and reduce the illegal trade of sea turtle eggs and contribute to the long-term survival of four endangered marine turtle species, with the aim of perfecting the technology and making it readily available to sea turtle conservationists worldwide. Refining the InvestEGGator so that it can be mass produced and made available to researchers around the world will provide an invaluable window into a burgeoning wildlife trade shrouded in secrecy.
We propose to construct artificial polyurethane sea turtle eggs carrying two covert tracking systems. These devices will be hidden in sea turtle nests that are likely to be poached.
GSM-GPS Tracking Device
This device will send information when the eggs are changing hands between poachers and intermediaries or are transported from one place of concealment to another. It uses existing mobile networks that are now widely available in Central America and throughout the global tropics where sea turtles nest.
This solution incorporates geospatial and on-the-ground monitoring systems allowing real time remote monitoring of illegal egg movements, and enabling the identification of the geographic source of the eggs. It incorporates widely available technology and operates via globally available communication networks, thus providing a solution that is both feasible and scalable.
The artificial eggs will mimic the texture, feel, appearance, dimensions, and weight of real sea turtle eggs. These plastic eggs will have the same characteristics of natural Olive Ridley eggs weighing 50 grams with a 40 mm diameter. Weight will be a crucial factor, since lighter eggs risk falling out of the mix or sinking to the bottom. Real eggs have a flexible, leathery shell, similar in shape to ping-pong balls but slightly larger and with a softer shell. To simulate a real sea turtle egg we are using a 3D printer.
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