Should Scientists Battle Poachers by Keeping Animal Locations Secret?

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iStock

You can find just about anything through a quick internet search—and it turns out that’s true even for poachers. Wild animal hunters are now using online scientific literature to locate rare and new species. That, two scientists warn in a recent essay, could create serious problems.

Easily accessible online data can help rare and endangered species, providing scientific evidence to support the need for measures to protect them. Accessibility also fosters better replication of scientific studies and greater collaboration among researchers. But "Do not publish," a recent essay in Science, argues that data also helps those with more nefarious intentions.

Essay co-author David Lindenmayer, a researcher at the Australian National University, spells out three potential problems with unrestricted access to information on rare and endangered species: surges in poaching; disruption of relationships between researchers and owners of land where studied species are found; and increased habitat disturbance and destruction.

Scientists have documented poaching within months of publishing taxonomic descriptions of new species. Lindenmayer tells Mental Floss that when authorities caught poachers shipping one of Australia’s rarest parrots out of the country in an industrial cooler, the container included copies of scientific papers citing the bird’s location. He also reports targeting of more than 20 newly described reptiles in this way, and an IUCN Red List assessment identified at least 355 reptile species intentionally targeted by collectors. Heavy hunting of an Indonesian turtle following its description in the scientific literature left the animal nearly extinct in the wild.

In fact, Lindenmayer says, if you search for some of these species online, the results will include some sites that claim to sell them.

So-called Lazarus species—those that reappear after having been thought extinct—require especially careful consideration regarding publicity. Scientists found evidence of a population of Sumatran rhinos, thought extinct for some 25 years, in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo in 2013. A later sighting received extensive publicity. Because poaching for rhino horn remains so popular, scientists argued in Biological Conservation that the Kalimantan rhinos survived precisely because few knew about them. The paper states that when publicity "increases the risk significantly relatively to benefits," secrecy should be favored.

Lindenmayer and co-author Ben Scheele also cite personal experience of strained relationships with landowners. The researchers discovered new populations of endangered, pink-tailed worm-lizards. Soon after they uploaded location information to open-access government wildlife atlases, a requirement of research permits, landowners began to complain about trespassers seeking the rare creatures. Those would-be collectors jeopardized relationships that took years to establish.

The trespassers also damaged important worm-lizard habitat. Habitat damage can happen even when people aren't trying to collect animals or plants but simply trying to see or photograph them. A paper in Animal Conservation reports that people frequently displace rocks while searching for snakes and lizards in southeastern Australia. The endangered broad-headed snake and its prey, velvet geckos, shelter in narrow crevices beneath sun-warmed rocks, but researchers rarely found either animal under rocks that people had displaced. The paper concluded that even minor displacement of overlying rocks modifies critical attributes of the crevices—and thus reduces habitat quality for the endangered species.

One potential downside of not sharing data could occur during environmental assessments for new development, Lindenmayer says. Species can't be protected if no one knows they're there.

Fortunately, there are ways to share data with those who need it without making it completely public. Consider how Charlotte Reemts, a research and monitoring ecologist with The Nature Conservancy, approached the publication of her research on the small, endangered star cactus, which is found in only a few South Texas counties. "When I wrote up my research, I purposefully left the location very vague," she tells Mental Floss. "I didn’t put in any maps or give the landowner’s name in the acknowledgements."

Databases such as those kept by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have mechanisms in place to not make locations public in certain situations, Reemts says.

"There is a difference between having scientific information that is not shared publicly, and keeping it from everyone," Joe Fargione, The Nature Conservancy’s science director for North America, tells Mental Floss. "Having a system to share data with qualified researchers allows the scientific community to have the benefit of that new knowledge, without exposing a species to additional risk from poachers."

It's not an unprecedented approach. "Other disciplines have tackled this problem well," Lindenmayer says, noting that archaeologists and paleontologists hold back data to protect important sites and fossil deposits from looters.

In Fargione’s opinion, the trick is to "treat data as sensitive as opposed to secret." He stresses, "Overharvesting of a species can significantly increase risk of extinction, and extinction is forever. So it makes sense not to do anything that would increase that irreversible risk."

Whiten Your Teeth From Home for $40 With This Motorized Toothbrush

AquaSonic
AquaSonic

Since many people aren't exactly rushing to see their dentist during the COVID-19 pandemic, it's become more important than ever to find the best at-home products to maintain your oral hygiene. And if you're looking for a high-quality motorized toothbrush, you can take advantage of this deal on the AquaSonic Black Series model, which is currently on sale for 71 percent off.

This smart toothbrush can actually tell you how long to keep the brush in one place to get the most thorough cleaning—and that’s just one of the ways it can remove more plaque than an average toothbrush. The brush also features multiple modes that can whiten teeth, adjust for sensitive teeth, and massage your gums for better blood flow.

As you’d expect from any smart device, modern technology doesn’t stop at functionality. The design of the AquaSonic Black Series is sleek enough to seamlessly fit in with a modern aesthetic, and the charging base is cordless so it’s easy to bring on the go. The current deal even includes a travel case and eight Dupont replacement heads.

Right now, you can find the AquaSonic Black Series toothbrush on sale for just $40.

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7 Facts About the Hurricane Highway

Hurricane Earl (top) and Hurricane Fiona (bottom) pummel the U.S. coast and Caribbean islands.
Hurricane Earl (top) and Hurricane Fiona (bottom) pummel the U.S. coast and Caribbean islands.
NOAA/NASA GOES Project // Public Domain

Autumn is the peak of hurricane season, also known as Cape Verde season, after the islands where the so-called "hurricane highway" originates. Here are seven facts about this awesome—and sometimes deadly—weather phenomenon.

1. The hurricane highway begins near the African coast.

The Cape Verde Islands, located off the northwest coast of Africa, are where the hurricane highway starts. Thunderstorms destined to become hurricanes often form into a tropical depression near the islands, slowly organizing and strengthening over the following week as the system moves toward the Caribbean. These storms have a long time to get their act together, but they also have to cover a lot of distance without losing their power to reach the East Coast as a hurricane. Some storms are able to thrive with little wind shear, ample warm water, and moist air, while others starve and dissipate if they encounter cooler waters and strong winds, or ingest dry, dusty air blowing off the Sahara Desert.

2. An easterly jet stream gives rise to the hurricane highway.

It’s hard to imagine from North America that a couple of thunderstorms on another continent thousands of miles away can swirl up into a monstrous storm, but it happens almost every year. The extreme temperature gradient between the blistering heat of the Sahara Desert and the more temperate climate of the savanna to its south creates an easterly jet stream that triggers clusters of showers and thunderstorms. These clouds then move from east to west, emerging off the western African coast near the Cape Verde Islands. Every year, the right conditions turn a handful of these localized storms into tropical storms that make their way across the Atlantic.

3. The biggest hurricanes start with the smallest storms on the hurricane highway.

Hurricane Andrew was a Category 5 hurricane when it made landfall in Homestead, Florida.Xanxz/NOAA, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hurricanes, cyclones, typhoons—these are all names for the same force of nature, like Hurricane Andrew, which hit the East Coast in 1992. Cyclones like Andrew don’t just form out of thin air. All tropical cyclones require a relatively tiny “nucleus” of thunderstorms in order to develop. When the air and water temperatures are right, these groups of thunderstorms sometimes spin up into a fierce low-pressure system capable of causing a lot of damage. We see lots of these seedling thunderstorms over the ocean every year, but only a small number of them become hurricanes.

4. Hurricanes form in different places in different months.

Where a tropical storm or hurricane begins its trip across the ocean depends on what time of the year it forms. Storms that form early in the season usually get their start from thunderstorms or cold fronts that stall over the water very close to land; almost all of the storms that form in the Atlantic in June come to life within a few hundred miles of land. When we reach the peak of hurricane season, though, they start to form farther and farther out in the ocean—all the way out to the shores of Africa.

5. Fall is the peak of hurricane season on the hurricane highway.

Hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean runs from June 1 through November 30. Storms are most common during that six-month stretch of the year, but sometimes they can form earlier or later too. That said, the period between the middle of August and the middle of October is typically the climatological peak of the season. That’s because, as the ocean water gets warmer, the atmosphere becomes conducive to vigorous storms, increasing the risk for hurricanes and tropical storms.

6. Cape Verde hurricanes can easily land in the record books.

This image shows the tracks of all tropical cyclones recorded in the Atlantic Ocean between 1851 and 2014.
Dennis Mersereau

Tropical waves traveling west from the coast of Africa in the middle of the summer are the culprits behind some of the worst hurricanes we’ve experienced in the United States. For example, on August 8, 2005, a small tropical wave emerged off the coast of Africa, soon becoming Tropical Depression 10. That depression would fall apart a few days later, but its remnants kept moving toward the U.S., redeveloping into a new tropical depression over the Bahamas on August 23. That new tropical depression became Hurricane Katrina, the costliest hurricane to ever strike the United States.

It’s a similar story for many—but not all—major hurricanes in recent history. Hurricanes Andrew, Dennis, Ivan, Isabel, and Ike were all Cape Verde–type storms that sprang to life thousands of miles away from where they would ultimately wreak havoc.

7. Strong hurricanes can still form in other places in autumn.

While the far eastern part of the Atlantic Ocean is a hotbed of activity this time of the year, it’s not the only place you need to watch if you live near the coast. Storms that form close to land can quickly spin themselves into catastrophe. Hurricane Sandy formed just south of Jamaica and hit New Jersey in a matter of days in 2012. A tropical depression that developed east of Florida on September 18, 2005, exploded into Hurricane Rita just three days later, with 180 mph winds—the most intense storm ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico.

Meteorologists are currently predicting an above-average hurricane season in 2020. It may be worth preparing: NOAA suggests gathering a few key disaster supplies to have on hand, getting an insurance check-up, and locating the safest high ground.