It's hard to imagine a more vulnerable animal than a newborn turtle. The little suckers hatch en masse and brave a gauntlet of predators like birds, crabs, and lizards on a long march to the sea when they're just minutes old. The grim odds say that just five out of 100 make it, but at least they got the chance to make a run for it–every year, untold thousands of endangered turtles are scooped up by poachers before they can even break free from their shells.
Whether it's giant salamanders and pangolins in China or turtle eggs in here in the Americas, some people just can't get enough of eating endangered species. Now, in an effort to track poaching activity, a conservation group has created 3-D printed eggs containing GPS trackers that it will plant in turtle nests in hopes that unwitting poachers scoop them up.
The Californian conservation group Paso Pacífico plans to plant the fake eggs, which look like ping pong balls and could be easily picked up by a poacher, during a mass nesting period in Central America this fall, The Washington Post reports. They'll share tracking data they collect with law enforcement agencies. The goal isn't to catch individual poachers at this point—they want to track where the eggs are going in order to bust a big fish in the turtle egg-smuggling black market. Just taking out one major player could have a huge effect, according to Kim Williams-Guillén, the director of conservation science at Paso Pacífico.
Poached sea turtle eggs are sold in Latin American bars even here in the United States, where they run from $5 to $20, and elsewhere throughout Central America. They are often served raw, dropped into beers, or boiled.
Even though nearly every species of sea turtle is endangered or on the brink of extinction, poachers take sea turtle eggs en masse. One poacher can clear out a beach in no time, and Paso Pacífico trains turtle rangers to protect beaches ripe for poaching. The group's founder, Sarah Otterstrom, estimates that without protection, 90 percent of sea turtle eggs will be poached from beaches in certain parts of Central America. Though big-time crime isn't the norm for poaching networks, a turtle conservationist was murdered in Costa Rica in 2013 while he was guarding leatherback turtle nests.
Poaching isn't just a Central and Latin American problem. Poachers operate here in the United States, too, and a week ago, a man in Florida was busted stooping to a new low, taking more than 100 eggs from a loggerhead turtle as she was laying them, the Post reports.
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But next time a poacher steals sea turtle eggs, he may pick up a loaded egg. It may seem like a small victory for sea turtles, but every little bit helps when mother nature births you straight into a turtle D-Day.