Science is essential to the survival of endangered species, but according to two Australian ecologists, it can also be a threat, and changes need to be made in the way it is conducted. Specifically, Professor David Lindenmayer and Dr Ben Scheele, both of the Australian National University, write in Science, the time has come to stop publishing the locations at which rare and endangered species have been found.
Science relies on reproducibility, so biologists discovering new species or previously undiscovered populations, usually publish plenty of detail, allowing colleagues to check their work or conduct more detailed studies.
Unfortunately, as Lindenmayer points out in a statement, “Wildlife poachers are able to access online reports and publications at a click of a button." Announcements in open access journals are particularly inviting for poachers. " In the past, it could only be accessed through hard copies and library basements,” he added.
Examples were published as early as 2006, of poachers accessing information from scientific journals – either directly or through wildlife atlases – to trap endangered species. Twenty reptile species have been driven to local extinction within a month of scientific publication.
Unfortunately, little was done to address the problem, and Lindenmayer and Scheele describe a similar problem they encountered when they discovered new populations of the endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella).
“It didn’t take long before we started getting phone calls from landowners saying they had people digging up the rocky areas where they live,” Lindenmayer said. Most visitors only wished to photograph the lizard, not steal it, but they accidentally damaged its habitat and upset the researchers' delicate relationship with local farmers, who became far less keen to allow scientists onto their land.
Zootaxa, a journal in which many new species are described, has responded by allowing authors to avoid revealing locations. Lindenmayer and Scheele hope other journals will follow suit, but such efforts are often thwarted by bureaucracy. Lindenmayer told IFLScience permits to search for endangered species in Australia often require publication in wildlife atlases. His attempts to raise concerns with government bodies met with no sympathy.
Lindenmayer, one of the world's leading experts on temperate forests, argued to IFLScience responses need to vary with circumstances, since “charismatic” species most at danger of being poached need extra secrecy.
Some publishers replace precise locations with references to 20 by 20 kilometer (12 by 12 miles) squares. This may work when a species' preferred habitat is unknown, or hard to find, but Lindenmayer gave the example of an animal known to prefer distinctive locations such as rocky outcrops. In this case a square of that size and Google Earth might be all poachers need to find their prize.