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These fake turtle eggs could crack a black market in animal poaching

Fake turtle eggs produced by Paso Pacífico; the one on the left has a GPS location tracker, and weighs less than 2 ounces, about the same as a regular turtle egg. (Dave Bothman/Paso Pacífico)
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Smooth to the touch and perfectly round, these ping pong ball-size eggs could easily pass for any of the millions laid and buried every year by endangered sea turtles on the beaches along the North and Central American coasts.

That’s the hope, anyway. Except in this case, they were laid by a 3D printer, and their silicone shell carries a GPS tracking device. They may just help solve a turtle-egg poaching problem that has plagued Central America and, more recently, U.S. shores.

“We want to sneak them into nests that are most vulnerable to poaching,” says Kim Williams-Guillén, director of conservation science at Paso Pacífico, the California conservation group that has created the egg that it hopes will fool poachers. “It would be really easy for them to grab one of those eggs and not even notice it.”

Paso Pacífico’s phony turtle egg, set to be deployed this fall in Central America during an arribada, or mass nesting event, is just one way law enforcement and activists have tried to crack down on the egg poaching of sea turtles, nearly all of which are endangered or under high threat of extinction.

Just last week, a Florida man was caught collecting 107 eggs straight from a loggerhead turtle while she was laying them; he could face a maximum five years in prison and a $5,000 fine. In May, a federal judge sentenced a California couple to six months in prison after they were caught smuggling 911 olive ridley sea turtle eggs from Mexico. And last fall, a Georgia man was sent to jail for 21 months after he was caught stealing 84 loggerhead eggs; he already had been on probation for the same crime.

Those don’t seem like huge cases of organized egg-theft rings, but “one individual can cause a big issue,” say Ed Grace, deputy assistant director for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office of law enforcement. A stretch of coastline may have only a few female turtles, he says, and it wouldn’t be difficult for one person to rob every nest — and single-handedly drive away a threatened species.

The eggs are a sort of low-brow delicacy common in Central American and Latin American bars in the United States. They’re slurped raw, like oysters — sometimes cracked into a beer — or eaten when they’re hard-boiled with a little salt.  They can cost anywhere from $5 to $20 apiece, Grace says.

“They’re held in jars on top of the bar,” he says. “They’re sold like peanuts.”

And Grace says that that the slow recovery of the sea turtles in the United States may be driving more cases of egg-poaching. In recent decades, greater focus on protecting different species of sea turtle — nearly all of which are classified as endangered — has led to tougher laws and penalties and greater local and federal enforcement. “Now that the population has been rising, [poachers] have more of an opportunity.”

The problems with poaching in Central America, though, are far greater. The scale of the turtle nesting, along with the associated poaching trade, is massive — and can be deadly to those who get in the way.  In 2013, a 26-year-old paid ranger, who was policing leatherback turtle nests in Limon, Costa Rica, was killed, likely by poachers.

[More than half the world’s sea turtles have eaten plastic, new study claims]

Williams-Guillén says that Paso Pacífico developed its egg, which won a grant from the USAID-sponsored Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, out of its experience trying to prevent poaching in Nicaragua. Paso Pacífico collaborates with local communities, and hires and trains “turtle rangers” who monitor the beaches.

“Poaching pressure is extremely intense,” says the group’s founder and director, Sarah Otterstrom.  “There can be thousands of turtles on the beach at night. And if there isn’t protection, we can be pretty certain that the beaches will be poached.” Paso Pacífico estimates that, without guards, about 90 percent of the nests are poached.

The fake egg is a way, Otterstrom says, to shift the focus away from the poachers — who make between 50 cents and $2 per dozen eggs in Nicaragua — and to where they are going, whether it’s El Salvador, which has relatively few turtle nests, or  the United States.

Do they envision using the tracking technology in their eggs to locate poachers in action — and bust them in real time? Not quite. They’re most interested in generating maps that show how — and where — the eggs are traded, so they can better understand the demand.

[Mexico’s new plan to protect endangered turtles? Drones.]

They’re also going to make the results available to law enforcement agencies, on both the local federal level. “We’re not planning on collecting data in real time, unless that’s something that they express real interest in,” Williams-Guillén said. “It’s certainly a possibility.”

Ultimately, she says, the goal is “being able to determine the players with money who are really driving the trade. Being able to remove even a couple of them could have a huge effect.”