Turtles have been around since the days of the dinosaurs — but are they about to follow them into extinction? Conservation scientist Kim Williams-Guillén is doing her best to prevent that. In this episode of ‘Fixed That For You’ we combine 'Breaking Bad,' a Hollywood special effects expert, and a 3D printer to track down poachers on remote tropical beaches.
Take a look at National Geographic’s short video to learn more about sea turtles.
Sea Turtle Conservancy is the oldest organization in the world working towards saving sea turtles through research, advocacy, and education.
Kim Williams-Guillén is a conservation scientist at Paso Pacifíco, an American environmental group working in Nicaragua.
Have a project that’s geared towards conservation technologies? Apply for a grant through National Geographic.
Kim Williams-Guillén: It's considered a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. It's kind of nature's Viagra if you will.
Cara Santa Maria: Kim Williams-Guillén isn't referring to oysters or chocolate. She's talking about sea turtle eggs and that's a serious problem for sea turtles.
Kim Williams-Guillén: In some of these beaches where we were working in Nicaragua, poaching rates were near a 100%.
Cara Santa Maria: The eggs are being poached for food and that's wiping out sea turtles. So armed with a 3D printer and an old episode of ‘Breaking Bad’, Kim is collecting data that could take down the illegal wildlife traders endangering them.
Cara Santa Maria: Welcome to Fixed To That For You, an original podcast from Segment about solving challenging problems with data and algorithms. I'm Cara Santa Maria and in this episode we go crime fighting in Central America with conservation technology.
Kim Williams-Guillén: This technology is to fill in the gaps and knowledge in the places that have been overlooked. Is there sort of one or a few kind of kingpins or is it a very diffuse network? Knowing that would tell us a lot about how the egg and poaching network is structured.
Cara Santa Maria: And those data might even have an impact beyond turtles.
Kim Williams-Guillén: It's not like you're just involved in the illegal trade of one thing. You're like, "Well, I only trading turtle eggs, I don't worry about parrots and monkeys," and there's a lot of evidence from other countries of overlap between illegal wildlife trade and things like the drug trade. So finding something like the root over which say turtle eggs are moving from Nicaragua into El Salvador could also help reveal the route by which Narcos are moving drugs from South America into North America.
Kim Williams-Guillén: Sea turtles are incredibly beautiful and they're incredibly vulnerable.
Cara Santa Maria: Turtles have been around since the days of the dinosaurs, but today there's a lot of concern they'll follow them into extinction.
Kim Williams-Guillén: All but one of the seven species of extant sea turtles are endangered or critically endangered.
Cara Santa Maria: There used to be tens of millions of them, but now there are fewer than one million among all seven species. If they go extinct it would have a disastrous impact on marine life, because sea turtles graze on seagrass beds keeping them healthy. It would also negatively affect the beach and dune systems which benefit from sea turtle nests.
Cara Santa Maria: Kim Williams-Guillén is a conservation scientist. For years she worked in Central America studying mammals like primates and bats.
Kim Williams-Guillén: I am a thoroughly terrestrial ecologist in background, so for a long time I didn't know diddly squat about sea turtles.
Cara Santa Maria: That changed after she joined Paso Pacifico, an American environmental group working in Nicaragua. She fell in love with sea turtles the night she saw her first Arribada — that's the Spanish name for a mass nesting event.
Kim Williams-Guillén: Everywhere you could look there were sea turtles emerging from the ocean going up the sand, finding the sight, excavating the sight, laying the eggs, covering it up, kinda packing it down and then shuffling back out to sea, and I just had never seen anything like it. It just was certainly one of those transformative unforgettable moments, just felt very prehistoric and just an absolute window on another time.
Cara Santa Maria: The next morning she realized that while the turtles hadn't changed, the world around them had.
Kim Williams-Guillén: It turned out at this beach that a huge number of the nests that these turtles were laying were being taken for the illegal trade in sea turtle eggs.
Cara Santa Maria: There are many threats to sea turtles. Oceans are becoming more acidic, which damages their shells, food rich corals reefs are shrinking, they can get caught in fisherman's nets and we've all heard about turtles mistaking plastic bags for jellyfish. Oh, and newborn turtles get drawn by bright lights from buildings near the shore, so they never make it to the ocean. But you know, you've gotta start somewhere, so Paso Pacifico decided to focus on protecting them while they're still inside the egg.
Kim Williams-Guillén: The eggs are a very traditional food and people in Central America have been eating sea turtle eggs since prehistory.
Cara Santa Maria: For many poor fishing communities the eggs are a good source of protein and a good source of income. There can be hundreds of eggs in just one turtle's clutch, but only about 2% of all turtle babies survive due to environmental issues, natural predators and poachers. The challenge is teaching people that poaching is pushing an already endangered species over the edge. So Paso Pacifico hired local fishermen to be turtle advocates.
Kim Williams-Guillén: We train these people to start running patrols, to start collecting data, but there's hundreds of miles of coastline. If you're protecting one beach it's very easy for the poachers to go to the next beach.
Cara Santa Maria: And that's a sign this is not just a local problem.
Kim Williams-Guillén: If turtle eggs are say leaving Nicaragua and going to El Salvador, then I can educate every single person in Nicaragua about not eating turtle eggs and still have a poaching problem, because I'm not reaching the final audience.
Cara Santa Maria: They're not just going to other Central American countries. Apparently, there's high demand for the eggs in China because of their supposed aphrodisiac properties and that's despite a ban on international trade of sea turtle eggs since 1981. Public education had its limits. That's when Kim turned to technology. The data set she needed was pretty simple, "Where were the eggs going?" But poaching happens in the middle of the night on hundreds of beaches spread across thousands of miles of coastline in sparsely populated areas. Defining the data set might have been easy, but collecting it was not.
Kim Williams-Guillén: I've played with a lot of ideas, a lot of really terrible ideas.
Cara Santa Maria: She considered using a dye pack that would burst if the nests were disturbed, but quickly realized that could injure the baby turtles when they hatch.
Kim Williams-Guillén: We thought about genetic testing which is how a lot of the existing information about wildlife poaching networks exist. It's very effective, but it takes a huge amount of footwork.
Cara Santa Maria: Then one night Kim was home in Michigan watching Walter White and Jesse Pinkman make meth on ‘Breaking Bad.’
Kim Williams-Guillén: And somebody, maybe at the DEA or in a Law Enforcement Agency surreptitiously puts a GPS transmitter on a barrel of chemicals. I just had an "aha" moment.
Cara Santa Maria: Everyone else saw a blue barrel filled with methylamine, but Kim saw a turtle egg.
Kim Williams-Guillén: We could put a GPS transmitter inside of a fake egg and hide that in a nest and then theoretically a poacher would take the nest full of eggs to someplace else and you could follow its path.
Cara Santa Maria: It's a creative way to apply tech to wildlife conservation, something that's growing in popularity.
Shah Selbe: Wildlife crime in general is the fourth most lucrative illegal activity, so part of what we're dealing with, generally in conservation, is just a lack of good data, a lack of understanding of what's actually happening out there.
Cara Santa Maria: That's Shah Selbe, a conservation technologist with Conservify, a group that puts technology in the hands of wildlife researchers.
Shah Selbe: Conservation before was they would send grad students out into the fields and they would just take observations and stuff over time, and then they'd leave and once they left the science stopped.
Cara Santa Maria: Shah wants to keep the science going.
Shah Selbe: Conservation technology is basically how we can take all of these modern innovations that we've seen in tech and in electronics, and bring it into the conservation space. Lot of that stuff has to do with low cost sensors. If you put a hundred sensors out in the environment, you get a much better answer about what's actually happening in that environment as opposed to just having one big expensive sensor. We also do a lot of work with drones, and so we'll typically use those for monitoring purposes to see if we can find people who are doing things that are illegal or damaging to wildlife, or we'll also use them just to generally map an environment and understand how that environment's changing over time.
Shah Selbe: Another aspect of it is apps, and so a big thing with that in conservation now is crowdsourcing information.
Cara Santa Maria: Kim only needed one type of data: location.
Kim Williams-Guillén: As a tropical researcher I think the most impactful technological change I've dealt with has just been geographic positioning systems and geographic information systems, and the degree to which that kind of locations specific data has informed ecology and conservation.
Cara Santa Maria: Accessing that data used to be harder.
Kim Williams-Guillén: When I started out as a graduate student, something like a handheld GPS technology was just becoming available. It was still pretty big and clunky, sometimes it reminds me of when you see a TV show set in the 80s and they pull out the giant cellphone that kind of is the size of telephone book.
Cara Santa Maria: But as Shah Selbe said, "Data collection's way easier now."
Kim Williams-Guillén: We did a very small amount of research just to find out, are there GPS transmitters out there that could fit within a turtle egg?
Cara Santa Maria: She found a company in China that makes small, inexpensive GPS units which transmit over regular cell networks.
Kim Williams-Guillén: So it's bigger than a turtle egg, but we found that we could dissemble it and pull the guts out and just barely fit into a sphere of about 4.5 centimeters in diameter.
Cara Santa Maria: On ‘Breaking Bad,’ Walter and Jesse found the GPS glued to the bottom of the barrel and got away. Kim wanted to do better. Her fake eggs had to fool practiced poachers.
Kim Williams-Guillén: The problem is that the egg has to feel realistic.
Cara Santa Maria: Sea turtle eggs aren't like the chicken eggs you get at the grocery store.
Kim Williams-Guillén: When the egg is fresh laid, it's squishy. As it ages, it becomes much firmer. So when a poacher is grabbing a bunch of eggs, they'll gently squeeze them to help them asses whether or not an egg is fresh enough to be eaten.
Cara Santa Maria: Kim spent weeks searching for the right material.
Kim Williams-Guillén: I played around with fillings made of cornstarch in a balloon. I was investigating, how do they make those stress balls, those squishy stress balls?
Cara Santa Maria: Then she stumbled across a material called ninja flex.
Kim Williams-Guillén: A very malleable, squishy, extremely strong plastic that can be used in a 3D printer. We did a lot of work working with a model, playing with it, adjusting the amount of flow, adjusting the thickness of the walls in order to get just the right squishiness. But, we were able, using that material, to develop a three dimensional model for turtle egg that has a cavity inside precisely fitted to the transmitter guts.
Cara Santa Maria: But it still didn't look like a turtle egg.
Kim Williams-Guillén: A turtle egg basically just looks like a ping pong ball with a dimple in it. So it kinda looks like a little death star.
Cara Santa Maria: And the color's also from another world.
Kim Williams-Guillén: Although the egg shell itself is an off-white, it's slightly translucent. The yellow of the yolk is kind of visible through the egg, so there's a kind of almost soft glow to it.
Cara Santa Maria: To get the right look, Kim's California-based colleagues at Paso Pacifico came up with a very California type of solution.
Kim Williams-Guillén: Somebody who works in Hollywood doing special effects makeup was able to sit down with us. She was really helpful particularly with thinking outside the box in terms of materials and additives for paints that really improved the flexibility and the strength of the outer coating.
Cara Santa Maria: Kim's fake eggs were not beautiful, squishy and glowy, ready to go on vacation and collect some data. She loaded a suitcase with 50 fake eggs and left Michigan for Nicaragua.
Kim Williams-Guillén: When I started working on this project I was living in the middle of Ann Arbor with excellent cell phone coverage.
Cara Santa Maria: Excellent cell phone coverage unfortunately doesn't apply in Nicaragua.
Kim Williams-Guillén: The eggs come pre-programed to work with two or three hundred of the world's most prominent and frequently used cell phone networks. None of those happened to be in Nicaragua it turns out.
Cara Santa Maria: That put her in a catch 22 every DIYer in the world has encountered at some point.
Kim Williams-Guillén: You can't program these damn things unless they have a SIM card in them that is connected and connecting to the internet.
Cara Santa Maria: You can't remotely reprogram them, 'cause they aren't connected, and you can't connect to them until they're reprogrammed.
Kim Williams-Guillén: At some point somebody said, "Hey, did you ever ask them if you can just program it with the USB cable?," and I said, "What?"
Cara Santa Maria: But manually tweaking other issues with the fake eggs led to other hazards.
Kim Williams-Guillén: In trying to disassemble those eggs and cut them open, I discovered some things about not puncturing lithium batteries, which is why they tell you not to bring them on airplanes. A couple of the eggs may be caught on fire and exploded, but the rest of them were still good to go.
Cara Santa Maria: Despite the odd challenge, after months of development, everything was finally coming together.
Kim Williams-Guillén: We were expecting a nesting event in Arribada on our local beach.
Cara Santa Maria: The plan was to drop a couple of fake eggs in some nests.
Kim Williams-Guillén: We saw lots of turtles in the water.
Cara Santa Maria: But mother nature had other plans.
Kim Williams-Guillén: There was, in the morning, a big earthquake offshore, so we for several hours couldn't return back to where we wanted to go, because there was a tsunami warning associated with the big earthquake.
Cara Santa Maria: Then things got worse.
Kim Williams-Guillén: And then that same day we ended up not being able to go even once the tsunami warning was lifted, because there was an incoming hurricane, and so I extended my trip, extended my trip again, and they just didn't come back.
Cara Santa Maria: Disheartened, but not discouraged, Kim and her team took a step back to plan their next attempt. But then another problem.
Kim Williams-Guillén: One aspect of the current Nicaraguan government is their way of dealing sometimes with problems is to deny that the problem exists, and so approving the project would have required them to acknowledge that there is egg poaching.
Cara Santa Maria: The government withdrew Kim's permits.
Kim Williams-Guillén: I won't lie, I was depressed or very disappointed, but I wasn't completely shattered because I've experienced so many different kinds of bumps in fieldwork before.
Cara Santa Maria: Technically the eggs were ready to go, but now the question became, "Where?"
Kim Williams-Guillén: During this time we started collaborating with a PhD student from England. Her name is Helen Pheasey.
Helen Pheasey: A friend of mine sent me an article that just said something about some 3D printed fake eggs.
Cara Santa Maria: That's Helen.
Helen Pheasey: And so I thought, "Hang on a minute, I'm looking at the trade of turtle eggs in Costa Rica being able to track poached nests? That's gonna be something that I really should get involved with. This sounds like something we could be mutually beneficial working together on." And so I got in touch with them from that.
Kim Williams-Guillén: This for me was the opportunity to actually see if these damn things were gonna work.
Cara Santa Maria: Helen took a 150 of Kim's eggs with her to Costa Rica and started testing them on the Caribbean coast.
Helen Pheasey: It was a mini Arribada beach, which means that they have about every month they have a huge amount of nesting activity, like maybe a 1,000 turtles coming up that night.
Cara Santa Maria: When those turtles hit the beach, they're completely focused on laying eggs. Once they've dug out a nest, they almost appear to go into a trance.
Helen Pheasey: So yeah, that's the perfect opportunity to sort of work with the turtle and you can get your hand right in egg chamber and deploy the eggs without any problems.
Cara Santa Maria: Deployment was easy, but the early returns were disappointing.
Helen Pheasey: We had a couple of situations where they actually found the eggs, left them on the beach, so the next day we go and look and see what's happened to the nest it's like, "Oh, there's my egg." That made me realize, "Okay, it's where you put the egg in the nest that determines whether they find it or not." It needs to be really deep in the nest, but not so deep that they get missed by the poacher and things like that.
Cara Santa Maria: She started hiding the fake eggs in the middle of the clutch, and the results improved instantly.
Helen Pheasey: One of the beaches that I worked on in the Pacific, we got results straight away and that egg traveled as far as the nearest pub or the nearest bar I should say. That sounds like, "Oh, it's failed," but actually no, it hasn't, because what it tells us is not only do the eggs work and the eggs travel, but the trade is local and we're probably only looking at one poacher on that beach.
Cara Santa Maria: This proved the egg worked, but the nearest bar wasn't exactly the destination they were waiting for. With only a few dozen eggs left, Helen had one more shot.
Helen Pheasey: It was the last night of the deployments. I think 28 turtles nested that night. One nest got poached out of all of those 28, and it had one of my eggs in it. It was a Saturday night, nothing happened, I'm looking on my app that I use to track the eggs. I'm seeing nothing, I'm seeing nothing. About seven o'clock on Monday morning I'm like, "That egg's come online." And it starts moving. And then it keeps moving and I'm like, "Hang on a minute, is it gonna go? Oh no, it's carrying on, it's still heading inland, it's still heading inland." It took a couple of hours to go really long distance, it was traveling fast, and it ended up going to some sort of warehouse, some sort of building. I'm looking on the map, I'm looking on the Google satellite and I'm like, "That just looks like some sort of loading bay of a supermarket, or something, this is really suspicious." And then it went offline.
Cara Santa Maria: But that one little egg still had a story to tell.
Helen Pheasey: And I go look at it again the next day, and it's moved somewhere else. "That looks like residential area." I then followed the egg myself on land. One of the things that they do with the eggs is they actually trade them door to door, so they're not really out in the open market, and this egg has been bought, I can pinpoint the house, I'm looking at it like, "That's exactly where my egg went."
Cara Santa Maria: And Kim's reaction?
Kim Williams-Guillén: Tremendous sense of joy mixed with relief, because this has been a huge amount of work.
Cara Santa Maria: Kim's hard work had finally paid off. She now had a working proof of concept to share with other conservation scientists, and hopefully save more sea turtles.
Helen Pheasey: It was so tempting to go and knock on the door and say, "Oh excuse me, did you buy something strange recently?" But no no, I thought, that’s pushing it.
Cara Santa Maria: But Helen never did knock on that door.
Kim Williams-Guillén: Certainly not like the individual poor people who are out on beach poaching are these bad, evil people who don't care about nature or the environment. There's a lot of people who would rather be doing anything else other than poaching sea turtle eggs. I would like to see them as being potential allies who don't know it yet.
Cara Santa Maria: Helen agrees.
Helen Pheasey: We're much more interested in whose actually trafficking those eggs, so what trade routes are they using, what paths are they taking? Is there a transport hub where they all congregate? Is there a pattern in their behavior that we can then have law enforcement to be waiting ahead of them rather than always being one step behind? If we can get the traffickers, then maybe we can start cutting up this trade chain and actually stop it in its tracks.
Cara Santa Maria: And that work has begun. With a viable proof of concept, the data set can now grow exponentially. Together with Kim, Helen and others are deploying more eggs in more countries, mapping more routes and hopefully collecting enough data that they can get governments to act.
Kim Williams-Guillén: I think it provides a platform also for a collaboration between all of these people who are working so very hard on sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica or El Salvador or Mexico or Guatemala, to come together to open the curtains and throw sunlight on something that's completely unknown.
Cara Santa Maria: That's a lot of useful data in one very small egg.
Cara Santa Maria: Okay, that's it for this episode of Fixed That For You, a podcast by Segment about big problems solved with data and algorithms. If you wanna find out more about Kim's story or to get involved with Paso Pacifico, check out the show notes and you can find us at segment.com/podcast. Plus subscribe at Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you that sort of thing. We drop a new episode every two weeks. I'm Cara Santa Maria, thanks for listening.