1 Tahrcountry Musings: April 2017

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Emerging digital threat to wildlife

 The digital technology, in recent years, has given a huge boost to wildlife research and conservation, but sadly the technology has started doing the Frankenstein act, with the advent of cyber poachers. Poachers and wildlife smugglers are pouncing on the technology with glee, in pursuit of their nefarious practices. Unwittingly social media is also lending a helping hand to the criminals. Data mining on social sites has become very easy. Internet has become the scouting ground of the scoundrels indulging in cyber poaching. What a travesty

When pictures of rare wildlife are posted on social sites like facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram, it leaves behind enough data for the cyber criminals to latch on to. They can easily hack and find the area where the pictures were taken.  Modern cameras and smartphones add geotags to the pictures and the digital data naturally goes up with the uploading. TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade-monitoring network has recently reported that transactions for illegal wildlife products, particularly ivory, were shifting away from online retailers and onto social media platforms.

A few days back the social media sites were agog with the pictures of two lovely pygmy elephants of Sabah, Malysia.. One of the elephants had an unusually long curved tusk. The poachers had no difficulty in finding out the area where the pictures were taken. They massacred the poor creatures to get the ivory. The conservation world is still reeling from shock waves of this sad incident.

In the latest issue of journal conservation biology, Professor Steven Cooke of Carleton University, Ottawa, has graphically described the modus operandi of the cyber poachers.  The professor says the very tools that were used to further the conservation efforts of endangered species are being hijacked to do just the opposite. Even though the threat is increasing alarmingly, right now there is no data to quantify the menace. Dr Cooks advises encystations of data and limiting the use of telemetry tools for non-research activities, as an immediate solution. What we should go for is in fact military style encystations of wildlife data, if we are really serious about containing the cascading threat.  Reputed scientific journals have already implemented the policy of not disclosing the sites of newly discovered species. In India we had a sample of cyber poaching when attempts were made to hack GPS collars of tigers. In some countries wildlife tour operates also have been guilty of accessing the digital data on the sly. Tags send out pings that can be easily accessed with cheap radio receivers. Instead of waiting for the animal you can easily stalk the animal.

All individuals can join the effort to free the cyber space from criminals. When you intend to upload pictures of rare wildlife, turn off geotaging before taking pictures and never disclose the exact site. The picture of pine marten taken in Munnar is a good example. All the photographers were keen to disclose the exact site where the picture was taken and naturally there was a rush to grab a picture of the rare animal. If you are a researcher, wildlife manager or a conservation photographer never discloses the sites of, rare, newly discovered wildlife. Use broad term like Western Ghats, instead of specifying the exact place of discovery.  The threat is not restricted to big animals. Rare snakes, tortoises and frogs are on the list of cyber criminals. Researchers have reported that some of the recently discovered frogs have very limited range, all the more reason to exercise abundant caution. The threat is real and increasing. Time to act is now. In June scientists are assembling in Australia to take stock the situation and come up with remedial measures on a war footing.