Electronic tagging and monitoring of endangered species plays a crucial role in wildlife conservation. It helps scientists understand and protect migratory marine species, like turtles, sharks, whales, and penguins, and similarly aids in the conservation effort of highly endangered animals like snow-leopards and tigers. But, as Uncle Ben told Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” And now a group of scientists has raised the alarm that tagging and tracking technologies have been compromised and abused to track, hunt, and kill at-risk species.
The paper, published in Conservation Biology, exposes the different ways that these tracking systems have been compromised by hunters and poachers in their attempt to find tagged animals. The lead author of the paper, Steven Cooke, a biologist at Carleton University, explained to the BCC that "we go out and do the science and provide the information and assume all is good but there are many ways in which this process can be corrupted."
The report outlines a number of risks, ranging from poachers trying to hack into tiger GPS collars, to wildlife photographers using tracking data to take pictures, to U.S. fishermen petitioning their local government to gain access to fish tagging data. The report explains that in the early 2000s, recreational fishermen in Minnesota looking to increase their catch of northern pike tried to gain access to movement data from electronic tagging. The fishermen argued that since the systems were funded by taxpayer dollars, the data should be made public. While fishermen were ultimately denied the data, the report goes on to cite a number of examples where tracking data was used to find and hunt tagged animals.
In 2014, the Western Australian (WA) government initiated a shark culling program in an attempt to make beaches safer for humans. As a great number of the species being targeted were listed as threatened with extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, researchers had outfitted some of these sharks with trackers. The resulting movement data was used to study the sharks’ habitat range and better plan for their conservation. The data was also used as a warning system for beachgoers: If a great white got too close to shore, a message was sent via the Surf Life Saving WA Twitter feed. But, the Australian government found another use of the data: find and kill sharks that they believed posed a threat to humans.
Perhaps even more troubling is the fact that, when confronted by concerned scientists, the government initially denied having used the tracking data in the shark culling program. A researcher reported getting an email from the the director of government media in WA which read: “We – the state government of WA – are not using scientific tags to track and kill white sharks.” The paper explains that this is just one example of tracking data being abused to reduce human-wildlife conflict, and that it’s quite possible for similar abuses of tracking data to “occur in other areas where human–wildlife conflict is related to livelihoods (e.g., predator attacks on livestock).”
"Just think about all the weird ways that people might try to exploit this technology," Cooke said in an interview with AFP.
The paper also cites the first known case of “cyber poaching” as another example of potential data abuse; poachers in India attempted unsuccessfully to hack into the GPS collars of Bengal tigers, which can pinpoint the location of the wearer to an accuracy of less than 10 feet. Considering that there are less than 4,000 tigers left in the wild, even an unsuccessful hack is troubling. And tigers are not alone in their risk from cyber poaching; elephants, rhinos and lions are just some of the other animals that are often tagged and tracked and also threatened by the illegal wildlife trade.
As human impact on the planet continues to push more and more animals towards extinction, the number of animals that require tagging and monitoring continues to grow. Just last week at the World Mobile Congress, researchers unveiled new smart telemetry tags to be used to monitor the movement of Harbour seals. In order to understand why seal population numbers are dwindling, the sensors will allow researchers to access a whole range of information, including their location, dive depth, temperature, and salinity of the surrounding water, and eventually the underwater sound.
Without a doubt, tagging and tracking of endangered animals has aided immensely to the conservation of species worldwide. As climate change continues to pressure ecosystems, this data will become even more important. Still, the paper makes it very clear that there are risks with tagging that must be addressed:
Failure to adopt more proactive thinking about the unintended consequences of electronic tagging could lead to malicious exploitation and disturbance of the very organisms researchers hope to understand and conserve.