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Good Intentions Gone Wrong

Today, citizen science has grown increasingly popular for those interested in conserving and collecting data for various species, especially those endangered or with limited habitats. The contributions of citizen scientists are invaluable, as they can make a significant difference in safeguarding and monitoring their whereabouts. They also enable conservationists to advocate for the protection of at-risk habitats.


Honey possum (Tarsipes rostratus). A short-range species that has been targeted by poachers and collectors.
Photo credit: anttanager - iNaturalist.


However, are these well-intentioned people accidentally leading those with ill intentions – such as collectors and poachers - to these species?

Websites such as the popular iNaturalist automatically obscure location information of threatened species. Additionally, they allow for users to obscure the location they found a species in, by making the coordinates private, skewing the positional accuracy, and giving a vague location and date where the data was taken. Care should still be taken when sharing location information for any species you think is at risk. This can include short-range species, desirable plants such as orchids, and critical sites such as burrows, dens, roosts, and nesting grounds.

This data leakage is not just from iNaturalist but from many different sources such as illegal wildlife pet traders, social media posts, and naturalist groups. The death of five Honey Possums (Tarsipes rostratus) believed to be linked to location data sourced from iNaturalist records, is just one instance among many where well-meaning individuals inadvertently put protected species at risk. Endangered animals such as the Lesser Swamp Orchid (Phaius australis) or animals that have short ranges like the Honey Possum often have very specific niche habitats. These habitats are very important breeding and foraging grounds   Even with the best of intentions, sharing such sites with the public has resulted in the destruction of these habitats. For example, disclosing bat roost locations during the COVID-19 pandemic led to their subsequent destruction due to misconceptions about bats carrying and transmitting the virus.

Posting photos can inadvertently lead to issues when collectors and poachers extract encrypted location data from the images or trace locations using landmarks. That's why groups like Birdlife often enforce strict policies and a code of ethics regarding photography and its use; see here. Revealing the location of rare and endangered species not only increases the risk of exploitation but can also disturb the animals or plants, particularly during vulnerable times like breeding seasons or when resources are scarce.


“The challenge is to share data in a way that avoids perverse outcomes such as local species extinctions from human exploitation.

…It is undeniable that in some cases, poachers have used published data to hunt down rare animals for the illegal wildlife trade” - Dr Tulloch, A decision tree for assessing the risks and benefits of publishing biodiversity data.


This doesn’t mean that the data shouldn’t be shared at all. Rather, it highlights the need for secure sharing, ensuring that individuals with malicious intent cannot access it. Those sharing the data must understand its importance and the reasons for safeguarding it. It's a complex situation with a trade-off between sharing and not sharing with the public. While it's beneficial to inform the public so they can contribute to monitoring and protecting species, there's a risk that some may exploit this information to harm the very species being protected.


A decision tree created by Dr Tulloch et al on how to publish location data and what protocols are needed and what scale. Tulloch, A. et al (2018) A decision tree for assessing the risks and benefits of publishing biodiversity data, Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s4155

“But stopping all data publishing is not the answer. Data publishing has also led to improved protection and conservation for many species. 

…Good data helps conservation managers know where action is needed.” – Dr Tulloch, So, what do we want you to take away from this?

 

It is still vital that we share biodiversity data with the public. As Dr Tulloch highlights it can lead to improved protection of many species and can fill knowledge gaps. However, it must be handled with care. Depending on the species involved different protocols will need to be put into place, and these must consider the potential risks if the information falls into the wrong hands. From a conservationist perspective, it is essential to grasp the gravity and potential consequences of mishandling data. What may seem innocuous could escalate into a disaster unintentionally. To err on the side of caution, it is advisable to limit online sharing of information about endangered or short-range species and their locations unless shared with a certified and trusted group. Even then, you must adhere to their ethics and policies to ensure that no harm befalls the animal or plant you are trying to protect.


Swamp Orchids (Phaius australis), an endangered species targeted by illegal collectors and loss of habitat by invasive pests like the Umbrella Tree.
Photo credit: gamnutbabies - iNaturalist.

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