The field of conservation and wildlife research has been revolutionized in recent years by the development of lightweight, long lasting, and reliable tracking devices that can be attached to wild animals. Biologists now have unprecedented insight into the natural history and behaviors of animals that was unthinkable 20 years ago. But it seems that there may be a more sinister side to this technology.
A new paper published in Conservation Biology has warned of “cyber-poaching”, in which poachers and hunters are tapping into the radio signals of tagged animals, and using it to track their quarry. In India, for example, attempts were made to hack into the GPS collar information of tagged Bengal tigers, while in Australia, data from sharks tagged to aid in their conservation was used by the government to track down and kill them, allegedly to reduce human-wildlife conflict.
Safari operators may have good intentions, but could actually be negatively affecting research. Claude Huot/Shutterstock
But it's not only poachers and hunters who are potential threats to wildlife. While tourists and photographers may have good intentions of simply wanting to see rare animals in the wild, they may have unintended consequences if they too use tags to track animals to get the perfect sighting or picture. By constantly following animals, it can lead to them altering their natural behavior, which can in turn put the animals at an increased risk of human-wildlife conflict while simultaneously skewing the data on their movements.
The researchers site Banff National Park in Canada as an example of where park rangers have subsequently banned the public use of VHF radio receivers, due to wildlife photographers using them to seek out tagged animals such as bears, wolves, and elk. Officials were worried that the creatures were becoming spooked, stressed, and habituated to people. Two other Canadian national parks, Yoho and Kootenay, have also implemented a similar ban.
The researchers recommend that those studying animals by tracking their movements should not release their data, and have better security protecting it. But this raises problems, particularly when it comes to publically funded studies, in that keeping any data from the public sphere is both difficult and questionable. This was seen in Minnesota, where fishers petitioned to get the data from tracked pike released so that they could track where the fish go to aid in their capture.
The study has been released ahead of a meeting in June, in which scientists will discuss the growing concern and problem surrounding the development of this issue, as well as potential fixes that may be possible.
Hunters have also been using tags to track prey, from mountain goats to fish. Steve Boice/Shutterstock