Saving threatened species from the danger of poachers

Illegal logging and wildlife poaching are driving species to extinction. But the scientists working to save these species may also inadvertently be releasing information that helps poachers find and destroy these species. Read on for helpful advice on how to avoid releasing a treasure map for poachers, rewritten from an interview with Robyn Williams for ABC’s Ockham’s razor.

Illegal logging and wildlife poaching are environmental crimes, extracting a huge toll on our planet.  According to a recent analysis, these problems have been the number one cause of species extinction over the last 500 years. In that time, we have lost nearly 250 unique plants and animals.

The main problem is that this unsustainable trade is worth big bucks. For example, did you know that a third of the global timber trade, that’s $60 billion dollars worth, is estimated to be illegal. And the trafficking of animals is valued at 23 billion dollars a year. That’s almost as profitable as the smuggling of drugs, people and arms.


Listen to Prof Andy Lowe’s interview with Robyn Williams:  Stopping the Poachers on ABC’s Ockham’s Razor.

But in contrast to those other black-market-industries, few go to jail for these environmental crimes.

The international trade in wildlife is largely driven by collectors. They want to own these rare plants and creatures – birds, lizards, frogs and orchids.

These species are just trophies.

Chinese cave gecko, popular target for poachers. Image from ABC News website, supplied: ANU/Carola Jucknies

So how do poachers find these species?

Well, it’s as easy as just going online, this knowledge is easily available by visiting wildlife trade websites, pet and naturalist clubs, citizen science sites, social media, and even in the popular press.

Without realising it we are serving this information up to poachers on a platter, and this despite laws and regulations, that are meant to stop these activities.

Against this background, scientists working to protect biodiversity may also be inadvertently contributing to the issue.

The problem arises when information on where to find these threatened and highly tradable species is openly published, adding to online resources.

Scientists are then caught in a classic dilemma.

They are encouraged to publish data so that their discoveries can be shared and scrutinised – which often includes the exact location where species can be found – but by publishing this information they are providing a treasure map for poachers to find these species.

If poachers are willing to turn gamekeeper, getting them to share their rare species knowledge securely would certainly improve conservation outcomes.

Take the recent example of the Chinese cave gecko.

It went extinct at the location where it was first discovered and described – potentially at the hands of scientifically literate poachers.

To prevent this problem, some have recommended that this information should be withheld by researchers.

However, this course of action will mean that this information is not available to researchers or governments to continue to help conserve and manage the world’s most threatened species. Indeed typically the problem for threatened species is there isn’t enough information on their populations and location for proper conservation management. For example, in New South Wales more than 150 species have missed out on conservation funding because of a lack of such information.

Clearly the location of highly collectable species clearly needs to be kept secure, but withholding these valuable data, risks the loss of vital knowledge in the quest to protect wildlife.

So how do we move forward?

Here’s how – a step by step guide for researchers studying rare and threatened species

1. Researchers need to know and understand the threatened and protected status of the species they study.  Highly collectable species include; highly, desirable or commercially valuable taxa such as brightly coloured birds, reptiles, amphibians, cage/aquarium-friendly species (lizards, salamanders, frogs), attractive/unusual plants (cycads, ferns, orchids), or invertebrates vulnerable to excessive collection. Other problems are ‘rare and easily disturbed species’ – those vulnerable to physical disturbance, disease, feral species being introduced by collectors, photographers. Information on the threatened status of animals and plants can be gained from the EPBC websites for Australia or the IUCN red list internationally.

2. Researchers working on highly collectable, rare and easily disturbed species should not publish the location data of study populations in printed literature, including scientific publications, published reports and media articles, or in social media or openly accessible websites.

However, recognising that researchers have a responsibility to publish information (including location) of their study species and populations, so that it can be used as the basis of future conservation and management, we recommend that this be done through secure information portals that can appropriately manage this treat.

Examples of these portals include DataONE, South Africa’s National Biodiversity Institute, Australia’s Virtual Herbarium, Australia’s Department of Environment, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, and the Atlas for Living Australia. Most science journals also allow sensitive data to be appropriately managed and authors should contact the journal editor about publication. A wealth of advice is also available to researchers and data managers on how to manage threatened species information, such as the guidance provided by Science International, the Australian National Data Service, and leading journals such as Science and Nature.

Typically data are protected in one of three ways:

  • masking sensitive information by giving only approximate locations or non-specific species names
  • making data available only after approval by the legal owners
  • embargoing the data for a maximum of two years.

3. Many governments have implemented information publication guidelines to protect species data. These policies, some of which have been in place for more than a decade, have kept secure the locations of hundreds of highly collectable species, including for example Australia’s Wollemi pine.

Grove of Wollemi pine, the location of which has been kept secret for more than 25 years (Jaimie Plaza)

But governments also have a responsibility to find and take down location information of highly collectable, rare and easily disturbed species. This is an ongoing and difficult task.

For example, the location of the wollemii pine was discussed by bushwalkers and published online, only to be taken down shortly afterwards by state authorities. It is possible, but needs increased vigilance, action and prosecution. The simple steps above will help ensure that scientists aren’t contributing to this problem.

4. The online repositories that house and manage sensitive data should move to harmonise their procedures and work more closely with governments and conservation organisations to rapidly update rare, threatened and disturbed species lists.

These simple steps will help ensure that scientists aren’t contributing to poaching problems.

Fundamentally, however, we also need to tackle the core problem here – wildlife poaching.

We should perhaps be seeking to motivate poachers to help protect our most endangered wildlife, and establish a sustainable framework for our most glorious species – as has been done for the Wollemi pine.

Such tactics are thought by some to have contributed to the discovery of several endangered bird species populations, and potentially the recent rediscovery of the night parrot in Queensland, after we thought it had gone extinct over a century ago.

If poachers are willing to turn gamekeeper, getting them to share their rare species knowledge securely would certainly improve conservation outcomes.

Andrew Lowe, Director of Food Innovation, University of Adelaide
Anita Smyth, Data manager, TERN, University of Adelaide
Ben Sparrow, Associate professor and Director – TERN AusPlots and Eco-informatics, University of Adelaide
Glenda Wardle, Professor in Ecology and Evolution, University of Sydney
David Turner, TERN, University of Adelaide
Phill Cassey, University of Adelaide

This article is rewritten from a piece originally published in The Conversation and acknowledges the co-signatories of a letter published in Science: Ken Atkins (WA Department of Parks and Wildlife), Ron Avery (NSW Office of Environment and Heritage), Lee Belbin (Atlas of Living Australia), Noleen Brown (Qld Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation), Amber E. Budden (DataONE, University of New Mexico), Paul Gioia (WA Department of Parks and Wildlife), Siddeswara Guru (TERN, University of Queensland), Mel Hardie (Victoria Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning), Tim Hirsch (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), Donald Hobern (Global Biodiversity Information Facility), John La Salle (Atlas of Living Australia, CSIRO), Scott R. Loarie (California Academy of Sciences), Matt Miles (SA Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources), Damian Milne (NT Department of Environment and Natural Resources), Miles Nicholls (Atlas of Living Australia, CSIRO), Maurizio Rossetto (National Herbarium of NSW), Jennifer Smits (ACT Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate), Gregston Terrill (ACT Department of Environment and Energy), and David Turner (University of Adelaide).

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