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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you haven’t heard of the Lord Howe Island stick insect, you have missed out on one of the most remarkable conservation stories of the decade.
This week’s news is that breeding colonies of Australia’s rarest insect will soon be established in zoos at San Diego, Toronto and Bristol. These new colonies will join those at the Melbourne Zoo and the Lord Howe Island Museum to ensure the future of this unique species.
The remarkable story of these stick insects (which are also called phasmids or land lobsters) started when rats escaped from a shipwreck in 1918 and proceeded to eat every last stick insect on Lord Howe Island. The species was thought to be extinct until a few live specimens were discovered on Balls Pyramid in 2001. The news headline in the Sydney Morning Herald at the time proclaimed: “Joy as ancient ‘walking sausage’ found alive.”
This remote and almost inaccessible population was the key to survival for the phasmids, but presented enormous difficulties for scientists who wanted to study them. Eventually an expedition was arranged to collect live specimens, which had to be done at night when the insects are out of their burrows and active.
The story of the captive breeding program is almost heart-stopping with many twists and turns. The original pair held at the Melbourne zoo were named Adam and Eve and because almost nothing was known of their lifestyle and habits, trial and error and careful observation were needed to provide them with appropriate care. At one point Eve nearly died but was revived when zookeeper Patrick Rohan carefully dropped a mixture of sugar, calcium and ground melaleuca leaves into her mouth.
Eve’s first egg hatched on Threatened Species Day on 2003, and although this wasn’t the end of the challenges facing Melbourne Zoo staff, it turned out to be the beginning of hope for the species’ successful captive breeding program.
I became personally acquainted with these insects when the zoo allowed selected schools to hatch some eggs and one of the babies spent time at my house. A film of her first steps and the story of our excitement was published here in 2012.
The Lord Howe stick insects start out small and green but grow up fat and black. They spend their days curled up together in burrows and head out at night to feed. Their story has caught the attention of David Attenborough and Jane Goodall.
New books about Lord Howe Stick Insects
If you want to know all about the story of the Lord Howe Stick Insects, two recent books are ready for you to devour.
Additionally and delightfully, the invertebrate zookeeper Rohan Cleave has released a children’s book, Phasmid: Saving the Lord Howe Stick Insect, with lovely watercolour illustrations that bring phasmids to life for young hearts.
Soon these books will become important in a global context, as people in San Diego, Toronto and Bristol get to meet our very own ‘walking sausages’.