Publish and don’t perish – how to keep rare species’ data away from poachers



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Birdwatchers are keeping the location of the newly rediscovered night parrot a closely guarded secret.
Adventure Australia, Author provided

Andrew Lowe, University of Adelaide; Anita Smyth, University of Adelaide; Ben Sparrow, University of Adelaide, and Glenda Wardle, University of Sydney

Highly collectable species, especially those that are rare and threatened, can potentially be put at risk from poaching if information describing where they can be found is published. But rather than withholding this information, as has been recently recommended, scientists should publish such information through secure data repositories so that this knowledge can continue to be used to help conserve and manage the world’s most threatened species.

Scientists are encouraged to publish data so their discoveries can be shared and scrutinised. However, a recent article has identified the risks of publishing the locations of rare, endangered or newly described species.

The example of the Chinese cave gecko shows that these concerns may be warranted. The species went extinct at the location where it was discovered, potentially at the hands of scientifically literate poachers.

But instead of withholding such information, we suggest (in a letter published today in Science) that scientists can publish sensitive data securely, while minimising the risk of misuse, by using one of a range of currently available tools.

A little knowledge

Typically, the problem for threatened species is not that too much information is available on their population and location, but rather quite the opposite. For example, in New South Wales more than 150 species have missed out on conservation funding because of a lack of such information.

On the flip side, there is little evidence that encouraging researchers to withhold this information will thwart people who are determined to find specific species. Collectors who specialise in highly collectable species can get location information from a variety of sources such as wildlife trade websites, pet and naturalist clubs, social media, and the popular press. This is despite the range of laws, regulations (such as scientific and collecting permits) and community reporting aimed at restricting the collection and trade of endangered species.

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

How to publish sensitive data

Many governments have implemented sensitive data policies to protect ecological and species data, based on their own lists of sensitive species. Many of these policies have been in place for almost a decade and have kept secure the locations of hundreds of highly collectable species such as Australia’s Wollemi pine.

These policies are practised by numerous data portals worldwide, including 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.

A wealth of advice is also available to researchers and data managers on how to manage sensitive species information, such as the guidance provided by Science International and the Australian National Data Service. Science journals also work closely with open data repositories to ensure that sensitive species information is securely published – see, for example, the policies of leading journals Science and Nature.

Information entropy – why it’s a good idea to publish data before they are lost in the mists of time.
Michener (2006) Ecol. Informatics

One example of good data management is the AEKOS data portal run by Australia’s Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN). AEKOS contains data from different government monitoring surveys covering almost 100,000 sites across the country. Its default position is to make ecological data and information freely available for land-management or wildlife research.

However, sensitive data are flagged during the early stages of the publishing process. The data are then secured 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.

To ensure data trustworthiness, TERN’s data reviewers further check for any data sensitivities that may have been overlooked during submission.

What’s the alternative?

We recognise the importance of keeping the locations of highly collectable species secure, and the need for caution in publishing precise site locations. But despite recent concerns, the examples given above show how online scientific data publishing practices have sufficiently matured to minimise misuses such as illegal or excessive collection, disturbance risk, and landholder privacy issues.

The alternative is not to deposit these valuable data at all. But this risks the loss of vital knowledge in the quest to protect wildlife.

In tackling poaching, we should perhaps seek to motivate poachers to help protect our most endangered wildlife. 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, after a century of elusiveness in Australia. If poachers are willing to turn gamekeeper, getting them to share their rare species knowledge securely would certainly improve conservation outcomes.


The ConversationThe authors acknowledge their co-signatories of the 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).

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, and Glenda Wardle, Professor in Ecology and Evolution, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Can property survive the great climate transition?



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Property is under threat, physically and conceptually, from climate change.
.Martin./flickr, CC BY-ND

Louise Crabtree, Western Sydney University

This is one of a series of articles to coincide with the 2017 Ecocity World Summit in Melbourne.


As we become an increasingly urban species, urban resilience is emerging as a big deal. The idea is generating a lot of noise about how to develop or retrofit cities that can deal with the many challenges before us, or consume less energy in the transition to post-carbon economies.

There is ample activity aimed at making this happen, including through designing and building ecocities, and calls such as that of the Transition Towns movement, which suggests substantial changes to our ways of life might be both necessary and inevitable.

In all of this, very little has been said about the elephant in the urban living room – property. Property systems are the codification of our relationship to place and the way in which many of us make a claim to place, including a roof over our heads.

If our cities are to become more resilient and sustainable, our systems of property need to come along for the ride.

Static property rights will be tested

Western systems of property law assume property is delineated and static: the property holder has invested (often substantial) financial resources to secure a claim to that neatly identified parcel of land and/or buildings. Further, the property owner expects to make a nice economic return on their parcel.

Unfortunately, the future doesn’t look neatly delineated or static. Many researchers and practitioners tell us the future might not look like anything we’ve ever seen. Some say we are reaching a tipping point, after which the rules we have constructed will no longer apply or be of use.

As some property is washed out to sea, much may become too hot to live in, and what remains may be subject to relentless and increasing waves of migration and instability.

In the face of such calamity, how then might we – as a big, inclusive “we” – talk about and demonstrate our relationship to place? Will we be able to do that without seeing the emergence of metaphorical or actual fortresses?

Models that allow for change

These are live questions. There are no easy answers, but there are places where we might start.

Models such as rolling easements offer one way to handle property that is in flux. Rolling easements are a form of property that recognises that the coast is a dynamic landscape and allows for the coastline of wetlands to migrate inland as sea levels rise.

These sound promising in their capacity to balance private and public interests in property, but their potential has not yet been tested in areas of urban development, such as housing.

Echoing the potential mobility and flexibility of rolling easements are diverse housing tenures that can dislocate the right to reside in place from exclusionary, proprietary title to an individual, speculative housing “asset”.

Examples include housing co-operatives and community land trusts. So far, these have proven effective in delivering a range of affordable and flexible housing options, but still ultimately rely on an understanding that property is static.

So, how might we conceptualise and identify dynamic models of housing that can change with our cities?

Mobility studies are starting to talk about home as mobile and fluid, while resilience theory is recognising the importance of a sense of place. Resilience theory also tells us that complex systems are best governed by collaborative, flexible, learning mechanisms.

The combination of more fluid understandings of home and more sensitive ideas of place may offer a framework for thinking about how we occupy cities through complex challenges and in the face of uncertainty – including how to accommodate the need for mobility and flexibility.

Indigenous inspiration

Living in colonised landscapes tells us it might be time to rethink which way around the “ownership” dynamic works in property relationships.

That is, if we are to think about and create property systems that are as dynamic as the landscapes we occupy, we might need to start thinking about ourselves as belonging to and answerable to the land, not the other way around.

We might also need to start thinking about our claims not being static but dependent on the web of relationships we are entwined in, including with non-humans. Some say that First Peoples might have a grasp of property dynamics that is more suited to the times we are entering.

So, making cities green might be the easy part. It remains to be seen whether property law and property systems are up to the task of transition.


The ConversationYou can read other articles in the series here. The Ecocity World Summit is being hosted by the University of Melbourne, Western Sydney University, the Victorian government and the City of Melbourne in Melbourne from July 12-14.

Louise Crabtree, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.