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 But "Do not publish," a recent essay in Science, argues that data also helps those with more nefarious intentions.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."