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



File 20170713 19681 mu89o9
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.

Scientists are accidentally helping poachers drive rare species to extinction



File 20170525 31761 tpg49j
The beautiful Chinese cave gecko, or Goniurosaurus luii, is highly prized by poachers.
Carola Jucknies

Benjamin Scheele, Australian National University and David Lindenmayer, Australian National University

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 endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella).
Author provided

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.

Fire salamanders have been devastated by diseases introduced through the wildlife trade.
Erwin Gruber

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.

Biologists can take a lesson from other fields such as palaeontology, where important fossil sites are often kept secret to avoid illegal collection. Similar practices are also common in archaeology.

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.

The ConversationBiologists 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

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

Rhinos should be conserved in Africa, not moved to Australia


Matt Hayward, Bangor 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. The Conversation

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.

Conservation cost

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.

Exploitation

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.

Matt Hayward, Senior Lecturer in Conservation, Bangor University

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

How to tackle the rising tide of poaching in Australia’s tropical seas


Steven Purcell, Southern Cross University and Hampus Eriksson, University of Wollongong

High-value marine species in waters off northern Australia are at increasing risk of poaching by foreign fishing crews, according to figures from the Australian Fisheries Management Authority. The number of foreign fishing boats caught in Australian waters increased from six in 2014–15 to 20 in 2015–16.

These fishers have evidently come to poach species that fetch high prices and have been overfished elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific region. They seek “lootable resources” – species that are attractive to the black market because they are expensive, easy to catch and weakly regulated.

Among the species being targeted are sea cucumbers, giant clams, turtles and sharks (specifically their fins).

Many of these species are listed as vulnerable or endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Some are even protected from trade by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

A long history of poaching

The apprehended vessels have been primarily from Vietnam and Indonesia. Last month, a Vietnamese fishing vessel stopped inside the Conservation Park Zone of the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve was found to be carrying 3 tonnes of partially processed sea cucumbers. Dried sea cucumber, called bêche-de-mer, can fetch more than A$300 per kg when sold in China.

The Timor and Arafura Seas have long histories of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing due to regional fishery expansion and displacement. Some scientists believe the tensions in the South China Sea are pushing Southeast Asian fishermen into Australian waters. It is also possible that Indonesia’s stricter fisheries policy is shifting fishing patterns in the region.

But apart from economic loss as resources are poached from Australian waters, what are the impacts? A new review shows that species such as sea cucumber can play crucial roles in boosting the health of coral reef systems. This is important at a time when reefs are facing intense stress from climate change and coastal development.

Nine species of sea cucumbers from Australian waters were recently declared threatened with extinction globally by the IUCN. Removal of some marine fauna might degrade the resilience of coral reef ecosystems to broad-scale stressors.

What can be done?

In June, Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton said: “Preventing illegal fishers from plundering Australia’s well-managed fisheries is every bit as important as stopping the people smugglers and illegal arrivals.”

Although the Australian Border Force has the capacity to apprehend illegal fishing boats, much of the poaching happens on distant coral reefs. One problem is that illegal fishing boats can plunder lootable resources and get out of Australian waters before Border Force can reach them. So while regulation might be well enforced on reefs within the Great Barrier Reef, for instance, offshore reefs are comparably weakly regulated.

But stronger monitoring and enforcement might not be the only solution anyway. My team’s research, which involved interviewing sea cucumber fishers from Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga and New Caledonia, suggests that they see themselves as having few other livelihood options besides fishing. This means that even if their fishery collapsed or was closed down by authorities, they would simply move elsewhere or fish a different species.

Many fishers from Southeast Asia have doubtless been lured to poaching in Australian waters by similar issues. Curbing the rise in poaching therefore requires not only continued enforcement but also, crucially, foreign aid investment that can help these fishers to diversify their livelihoods.

Australia recently reshaped its foreign aid policy to focus predominantly on delivering “economic growth and poverty reduction”. Organisations such as the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) are investing in overseas research and development projects to provide more income-generating opportunities in fisheries and aquaculture. Support to Southeast Asian countries makes up 49% of the budget for fisheries and aquaculture projects.

Australia’s approach to reducing poaching of threatened resources should therefore be multifaceted. Helping foreign fishers deal with their own problems of overfishing by giving them more options to earn a living will ultimately help to tackle the root cause of marine poaching.

The Conversation

Steven Purcell, Senior Rearch Fellow in Fisheries Ecology, Southern Cross University and Hampus Eriksson, Senior research fellow, University of Wollongong

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