The link below is to an article reporting on the deaths of six rangers in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo by poachers.
Matthew H. Holden, The University of Queensland; Alexander Richard Braczkowski, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, The University of Queensland
The tusks of more than ten thousand elephants went up in flames in Kenya on April 30, 2016 – the world’s largest ever ivory burn. It was meant as a powerful display against poaching and the illegal ivory trade.
But did those flames reach their intended target?
Currently, governments, donors and NGOs aren’t monitoring the impact of these ivory burns. So we tracked the media coverage of the Kenyan burn, with the results published this month in Conservation Biology.
Who got the message?
We had a simple question in mind with this research: did news of this burn make its way to ivory consumers and elephant poachers, and if so was the message one that denounced poaching?
The answer is a bit nuanced. Certainly the news of the ivory burn was strong (loud and clear) locally in Kenya and Tanzania and heavily amplified by news outlets across the western world (81% of online articles on the burn were produced in the United States).
Unfortunately, we found low coverage of the burn in China, Vietnam and other countries where demand for illegal ivory is highest.
Of the 1,944 online articles that covered the burn in the countries sampled, only 61 where produced in mainland china. Additionally, more than half of the coverage in China was in English language publications, which may not reach or resonate with all key ivory consumers.
The good news is, media stories around the ivory burn delivered an anti-poaching message. They stressed the importance of burns, ivory trade bans and law enforcement to catch poachers, smugglers and dealers, as key steps to saving elephants.
To burn or not to burn?
The authors on our research paper are a group of scientists and conservationists with diverse backgrounds, across Africa, North America, Australia, Europe and Asia. Our values are as diverse as our experiences.
Most of us feel a bit of sadness because watching elephant tusks engulfed in flames is a reminder of elephant slaughter.
For some of us though, the sadness is tempered by feelings of hope and justice – this is ivory that will never go into the hands of illegal dealers and ivory consumers and, as such, acts as a major deterrent.
But for others, the response was upsetting – animals had been murdered, and to add insult to injury, their remains wasted.
In the Kenyan burn, the ivory was estimated to be worth more than US$100 million (A$128 million) on the black market.
These stockpiles of ivory are an unfortunate reality. Ivory is harvested by elephant poachers. Between 2007 and 2014 an estimated 144,000 elephants were killed. If we are lucky, these poachers are caught and their ivory confiscated. Piles of seized ivory accumulate in massive stockpiles across Africa.
So this poses a difficult situation. What should we do with all that ivory?
We’d all, obviously, rather see ivory where it belongs, on live elephants. In an ideal world ivory would only be collected, if at all, from elephants that died from natural causes and so trade in this product would not be a problem.
But the world isn’t ideal. Even though the price of ivory has declined, elephant tusks have been known to fetch up to US$10,000 (A$12,800). With the financial incentive to poach so high, it sometimes seems like an insurmountable problem.
Ivory for conservation
Some of us believe that destroying ivory sends a strong message against poaching and illegal ivory trade – by saying that ivory is only valuable on a living elephant.
These members of our group think that we might as well burn these stockpiles, to demonstrate that trade should never be supported (as it cannot be adequately policed). They are heartened by the adoption of ivory trade bans by China and the United States.
But others in the group think destroying a quantity of ivory – worth far more on the black market than Kenya’s entire annual wildlife management budget – squanders an opportunity to sell the ivory.
The money could then be used to conserve elephants and other endangered wildlife (although pro-trade proponents acknowledge that there are implementation issues regarding corruption and policing efficacy).
To these members of our group, burning the ivory would be like burning cash in front of a person with no food or shelter.
Deep down inside, we all have one common goal, to save elephants.
Rather than arguing based on our emotions, that’s why we carried out the latest research – a first step towards helping us decide whether ivory burns will reduce poaching.
With the most recent ivory destruction event, in Melbourne, Australia, now is the time to think deeply about the efficacy of these ivory destruction events.
We need messages to be targeted towards the most important audiences, and we need to monitor consumer behaviour – not just the media coverage – in response to these events.
The scientific evidence for which action best saves elephants – burning or using regulated ivory sales to fund conservation – is still inconclusive. But as long as we move forward with ivory destruction, let’s make sure we monitor its impact.
Matthew H. Holden, Lecturer, Centre for Applications in Natural Resource Mathematics, The University of Queensland; Alexander Richard Braczkowski, PhD Candidate – Wildlife Cameraman, The University of Queensland; Christopher O’Bryan, PhD Candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland; Duan Biggs, Senior Research Fellow Social-Ecological Systems & Resilience, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, PhD candidate, School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, and James Watson, Associate Professor, The University of Queensland
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.
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.
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 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
If you open Google and start typing “Chinese cave gecko”, the text will auto-populate to “Chinese cave gecko for sale” – just US$150, with delivery. This extremely rare species is just one of an increasingly large number of animals being pushed to extinction in the wild by animal trafficking.
What’s shocking is that the illegal trade in Chinese cave geckoes began so soon after they were first scientifically described in the early 2000s.
It’s not an isolated case; poachers are trawling scientific papers for information on the location and habits of new, rare species.
As we argue in an essay published today in Science, scientists may have to rethink how much information we publicly publish. Ironically, the principles of open access and transparency have led to the creation of detailed online databases that pose a very real threat to endangered species.
We have personally experienced this, in our research on the endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard, a startling creature that resembles a snake. Biologists working in New South Wales are required to provide location data on all species they discover during scientific surveys to an online wildlife atlas.
But after we published our data, the landowners with whom we worked began to find trespassers on their properties. The interlopers had scoured online wildlife atlases. As well as putting animals at risk, this undermines vital long-term relationships between researchers and landowners.
The illegal trade in wildlife has exploded online. Several recently described species have been devastated by poaching almost immediately after appearing in the scientific literature. Particularly at risk are animals with small geographic ranges and specialised habitats, which can be most easily pinpointed.
Poaching isn’t the only problem that is exacerbated by unrestricted access to information on rare and endangered species. Overzealous wildlife enthusiasts are increasingly scanning scientific papers, government and NGO reports, and wildlife atlases to track down unusual species to photograph or handle.
This can seriously disturb the animals, destroy specialised microhabitats, and spread disease. A striking example is the recent outbreak in Europe of a amphibian chytrid fungus, which essentially “eats” the skin of salamanders.
This pathogen was introduced from Asia through wildlife trade, and has already driven some fire salamander populations to extinction.
Rethinking unrestricted access
In an era when poachers can arm themselves with the latest scientific data, we must urgently rethink whether it is appropriate to put detailed location and habitat information into the public domain.
We argue that before publishing, scientists must ask themselves: will this information aid or harm conservation efforts? Is this species particularly vulnerable to disruption? Is it slow-growing and long-lived? Is it likely to be poached?
Fortunately, this calculus will only be relevant in a few cases. Researchers might feel an intellectual passion for the least lovable subjects, but when it comes to poaching, it is generally only charismatic and attractive animals that have broad commercial appeal.
But in high-risk cases, where economically valuable species lack adequate protection, scientists need to consider censoring themselves to avoid unintentionally contributing to species declines.
Restricting information on rare and endangered species has trade-offs, and might inhibit some conservation efforts. Yet, much useful information can still be openly published without including specific details that could help the nefarious (or misguided) to find a vulnerable species.
There are signs people are beginning to recognise this problem and adapt to it. For example, new species descriptions are now being published without location data or habitat descriptions.
Restricting the open publication of scientifically and socially important information brings its own challenges, and we don’t have all the answers. For example, the dilemma of organising secure databases to collate data on a global scale remains unresolved.
For the most part, the move towards making research freely available is positive; encouraging collaboration and driving new discoveries. But legal or academic requirements to publish location data may be dangerously out of step with real-life risks.
Biologists have a centuries-old tradition of publishing information on rare and endangered species. For much of this history it was an innocuous practice, but as the world changes, scientists must rethink old norms.
Benjamin Scheele, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University
Rhinos are one of the most iconic symbols of the African savanna: grey behemoths with armour plating and fearsome horns. And yet it is the horns that are leading to their demise. Poaching is so prolific that zoos cannot even protect them.
Some people believe rhino horns can cure several ailments; others see horns as status symbols. Given horns are made of keratin, this is really about as effective as chewing your finger nails. Nonetheless, a massive increase in poaching over the past decade has led to rapid declines in some rhino species, and solutions are urgently needed.
One proposal is to take 80 rhinos from private game farms in South Africa and transport them to captive facilities in Australia, at a cost of over US$4m. Though it cannot be denied that this is a “novel” idea, I, and colleagues from around the world, have serious concerns about the project, and we have now published a paper looking into the problematic plan.
The first issue is whether the cost of moving the rhinos is unjustified. The $4m cost is almost double the anti-poaching budget for South African National Parks ($2.2m), the managers of the estate where most white rhinos currently reside in the country.
The money would be better spent on anti-poaching activities in South Africa to increase local capacity. Or, from an Australian perspective, given the country’s abysmal record of mammal extinctions, it could go towards protecting indigenous species there.
In addition, there is the time cost of using the expertise of business leaders, marketeers and scientists. All could be working on conservation issues of much greater importance.
Bringing animals from the wild into captivity introduces strong selective pressure for domestication. Essentially, those animals that are too wild don’t breed and so don’t pass on their genes, while the sedate (unwild) animals do. This is exacerbated for species like rhinos where predation has shaped their evolution: they have grown big, dangerous horns to protect themselves. So captivity will likely be detrimental to the survival of any captive bred offspring should they be returned to the wild.
It is not known yet which rhino species will be the focus of the Australian project, but it will probably be the southern white rhino subspecies – which is the rhino species least likely to go extinct. The global population estimate for southern white rhinos (over 20,000) is stable, despite high poaching levels.
This number stands in stark contrast to the number of northern white (three), black (4,880 and increasing), great Indian (2,575), Sumatran (275) and Javan (up to 66) rhinos. These latter three species are clearly of much greater conservation concern than southern white rhinos.
There are also well over 800 southern white rhinos currently held in zoos around the world.
With appropriate management, the population size of the southern white is unlikely to lose genetic diversity, so adding 80 more individuals to zoos is utterly unnecessary. By contrast, across the world there are 39 other large mammalian herbivore species that are threatened with extinction that are far more in need of conservation funding than the five rhino species.
Rhinos inhabit places occupied by other less high profile threatened species – like African wild dogs and pangolins – which do not benefit from the same level of conservation funding. Conserving wildlife in their natural habitat has many benefits for the creatures and plants they coexist with. Rhinos are keystone species, creating grazing lawns that provide habitats for other species and ultimately affect fire regimes (fire frequency and burn patterns). They are also habitats themselves for a range of species-specific parasites. Abandoning efforts to conserve rhinos in their environment means these ecosystem services will no longer be provided.
Finally, taking biodiversity assets (rhinos) from Africa and transporting them to foreign countries extends the history of exploitation of Africa’s resources. Although well-meaning, the safe-keeping of rhinos by Western countries is as disempowering and patronising as the historical appropriation of cultural artefacts by colonial powers.
Conservation projects are ultimately more successful when led locally. With its strong social foundation, community-based conservation has had a significant impact on rhino protection and population recovery in Africa. In fact, local capacity and institutions are at the centre of one of the world’s most successful conservation success stories – the southern white rhino was brought back from the brink, growing from a few hundred in South Africa at the turn of the last century to over 20,000 throughout southern Africa today.
In our opinion, this project is neo-colonial conservation that diverts money and public attention away from the fundamental issues necessary to conserve rhinos. There is no evidence of what will happen to the rhinos transported to Australia once the poaching crisis is averted, but there seems nothing as robust as China’s “panda diplomacy” where pandas provided to foreign zoos remain the property of China, alongside a substantial annual payment, as do any offspring produced, for the duration of the arrangement.
With increased support, community-based rhino conservation initiatives can continue to lead the way. It is money that is missing, not the will to conserve them nor the expertise necessary to do so. Using the funding proposed for the Australian Rhino Project to support locally-led conservation or to educate people to reduce consumer demand for rhino horn in Asia seem far more acceptable options.