How IoT trackers can fight poachers

InvestEGGator is finding ways to stop poachers with IoT trackers.

couple scuba diving 133729032
Thinkstock

Sea turtles have been survived for millions of years, but now face extinction.  as poachers. How do you protect sea turtles eggs on remote, miles-long beaches in developing countries from poachers working in the dark?

Global System for Mobile Communications, or GSM, enabled IoT trackers may provide an answer to this scourge.

Background

Poachers kill sea turtles for their shells and their eggs are considered a delicacy and aphrodisiac. Sad but true. The trade of sea turtle products is restricted, but that doesn’t stop poachers. Tracking this illegal trafficking is difficult. The transit routes and final destinations are unknown.

Sea turtle products are the second most frequently trafficked wildlife product smuggled from Latin America to the US. Eggs are a quarter of illegal imports and most originate in Mexico or Central America. This trade is devastating to turtle populations. A recent shipment of a thousand turtle eggs that was intercepted at the Mexico/U.S. border represented nearly 5 percent of the year’s total egg production for the beach from which they were poached!

Huge profit margins drive this illegal trade. A single turtle egg can sell for up to $300 on the international market! The initial poachers are often poor local villagers or small gangs. But, the middlemen trafficking the eggs are often part of networks dedicated to drug and human trafficking. Ths criminal supply chain in illegal wildlife relies on transportation infrastructure, storage facilities, and connections to corrupt business and government officials. Fighting poaching that cross different countries is difficult. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement to control trade in wildlife - but it’s voluntary, and enforcement varies.

What’s needed

Traffickers transport the stolen turtle eggs using complex routes. Any solution has to detect, monitor, and predict transit routes for law enforcement to be effective. USAID issued a Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge in 2016 to spur innovation of solutions.

The non-profit organization Paso Pacifico was a finalist in the “Detect Transit Routes” section of the challenge with its InvestEGGator. The approach uses artificial sea turtles eggs with built-in GSM GPS devices to detect the illegal movement of eggs and to provide data to conservation groups and law enforcement. Fake eggs are placed in sea turtle nests and their movement is tracked as they are transported along the poacher’s illegal supply chains. Paso Pacifico was recently awarded an Acceleration Prize by that same challenge. The National Geographic Society awarded the team a grant to conduct larger scale field trials of the egg.

Requirements

The fake eggs have to meet many product requirements for this solution to work:

  1. They have to resemble a real sea turtle egg weight and texture.
  2. They have to be waterproof
  3. Capable of working for extended periods of time without recharging.
  4. Low cost so that many sensors can be placed on different beaches.
  5. Work across different cellular networks as the eggs are transported across borders.
  6. Easily manufactured in different countries where they will be deployed

There are several existing IoT approaches solutions for asset tracking, but they don’t work well for anti-poaching.

  • Passive RFID: where a tag has to be energized by a scanner before it can transmit data upto 20 feet away about the asset’s location.
  • Active RFID: the tag has its own energy source and can transmit its status to a reader upto 100 feet away.
  • WiFi triangulation: tracks the location of an item by measuring the strength of WiFi signals from nearby base stations. They’re widely used for indoor location tracking.
    Satellite based tracking: uses tags with the signal strength to send their location to a satellite, but they are typically large, expensive and consume a lot of power.

A different approach is needed that can work well on the beaches and at border crossings. The project also hopes is to install egg-detecting smartphones in strategic locations such as border crossings or airports to catch poachers from the bluetooth signals transmitted by their stolen egg decoys.

Solution design

The InvestEGGator uses artificial polyurethane sea turtle eggs with two covert tracking systems. GSM-GPS tracking device uses existing mobile networks widely available in Central America and throughout the global tropics with sea turtles nest. It incorporates geospatial and on-the-ground monitoring systems allowing real time remote monitoring of illegal egg movements, and identifying the geographic source of the eggs.

The sensor has a flexible, leathery shell like a real sea turtle egg. It is 1.5” in diameter and weigh about 2 ounces, like a heavy ping-pong ball. The egg’s weight is a critical as lighter eggs might fall out of the mix and heavier ones might sink. The eggs are built with a 3D printer which lowers their cost and allows them to be made anywhere.

A multi-discplinary approach

Poaching is a complex problem that demands a holistic approach for the solution to work. Impoverished villagers, conservationists, technologists, security officials and government authorities are all involved. Sarah Otterstrom is an Ashoka fellow and ideally suited for this challenge. Ashoka is a non-profit that identifies and supports social entrepreneurs such as Sarah. Unlike business entrepreneurs who measure success by profit, social entrepreneurs measure their success by the positive “return to society” they generate.

Sarah the executive director of Paso Pacífico, has assembled a broad coalition to develop this anti-poaching solution. Dr. Kim Williams-Guillen, Director of Conservation Science at Paso Pacifico leads the product design and innovation, and Felipe Farme D’Amoed lead the production and scaling planning. Hollywood special effects artist Lauren Wilde is working on the artificial eggshell.

Sea turtles are one of the most ancient creatures on the planet and have been around for 110  million years, since the time of the dinosaurs. Using IoT, InvestEGGator offers the hope that they might survive for a little while longer.

This article is published as part of the IDG Contributor Network. Want to Join?

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.
Now read: Getting grounded in IoT