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Scientists Discover A Way To Prevent Illegal Trade Of Turtle Eggs

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As soon as they hatch, baby sea turtles scamper down the sand to the ocean, evading hungry predators like crabs and birds.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

But humans pose a danger, too. Sea turtle eggs are illegally dug up and sold as a delicacy in Central America. And that doesn't bode well for the turtles' future, says Crawford Allan of the World Wildlife Fund.

CRAWFORD ALLAN: There are seven species of marine turtle in the world, and they're all threatened. They're all threatened with extinction. And three of them are highly endangered, at great risk of extinction.

KELLY: Now, inspired by shows like "Breaking Bad" and "The Wire," scientists have invented a crime-tracking tool to prevent that - GPS-enabled decoy turtle eggs.

CHANG: They're 3D printed to look and feel just like the real thing but with tracking technology inside. Researchers hid the decoys in about a hundred sea turtle nests in Costa Rica. And soon, several eggs sprung to life. And one in particular took a remarkable trip.

HELEN PHEASEY: I deployed it on a Saturday night. Nothing happened. Nothing happened. I said OK. Monday morning, it's come online, and it starts moving. And it just moved and moved and moved (laughter) and moved (laughter). And it was just going further and further inland (laughter). This is incredible. This is so cool.

KELLY: That is Helen Pheasey, lead author of the work out today in the journal Current Biology. Over several days, she says the decoy traveled 85 miles, first to a supermarket back alley, then to a residence.

PHEASEY: And what we know from interviews I've done and, like, talking to people about, you know, anecdotal data that we've collected is like, yeah, the illegal trade happens by people selling eggs door to door.

CHANG: Pheasey's collaborator, Sarah Otterstrom, says it's a proof of concept that could extend to other realms of wildlife poaching.

SARAH OTTERSTROM: We're working with a local high school group called the STEMmbassadors here in Ventura, Calif., to create a 3D hammerhead shark fin and then can be hidden in with a shipment of shark fins.

KELLY: And while the decoys may be effective for law enforcement, Pheasey stressed the technology is not intended to target local community members.

PHEASEY: Yeah, they're doing harm because they're taking nests, but they're not really the big players here that we're interested in. We're interested in the traffickers.

CHANG: Lack of education and well-paying jobs are also big issues driving poaching, she says. Decoy eggs are just cracking the surface of what's needed to save the turtles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.