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Scientific publications and threatened species

To the excitement of a discovery comes the fear of destroying it. This is the case when the discovery is a new species which is rare, endemic or strange, has a lot of value for the ecosystem or biologists… and for smugglers.

Threatened species are made more vulnerable by scientific publications

Ironically, describing precisely a threatened species and its location in scientific publications can both benefit its conservation and push it towards extinction by making it a target for poaching. In this era of the sixth mass extinction, the necessity of protecting at all costs vulnerable species could enforce to pass in silence the information on their location in scientific publications.

Advantages for research and species protection

If biologists share with great details any data they gathered on rare or endangered species it is firstly for scientific cooperation. These data – which are the species description, their habitat and precise coordinates where they were found – are published in scientific journals but also in public reports, wildlife atlas, and of course online to take part in open-access information for the public. Such information helps sciences to move forward. Their availability for coworkers improves the reproducibility of research which is a fundamental aspect of sciences.

Moreover, publication rimes with conservation. In fact, knowing biodiversity is the first step before taking action into protection and management actions. Through these publications biologists allow unknown species to be recognized and officially classified as vulnerable or protected if its status is worrisome. Furthermore, information regarding endangered species, more specifically and especially their location data can help fighting rural or urban development project threatening their natural habitat or invite governments to create protected areas for them.

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Publication dangers

Publication also rimes with extinction. For threatened species, the key word preached by D. Lindenmayer and B. Scheele in an essay published in May 2017 in the journal Science, titled “Do not publish” is to disclose nothing for a better protection. Australian biologists alert their coworkers on the negative impacts of unveiling too much information to the public on threatened species by making them even more vulnerable.

They identified three major consequences following a publication:

  • Increase the vulnerability of species and contribute to their decline

Published information in scientific journals are accessible to all – even if some of them are lucrative – and this includes malicious people such as poachers. The latter target new found species as they are highly requested by exotic species collectors. Indeed, according to the UICN, rare, protected, threatened with extinction or endemic species, meaning they are specific to some areas, are very popular on the black market especially if they are weird, colored or emblematic.

In this way, publications can nurture illegal traffic of wild species that we wanted to protect and potentially lead them to extinction. There are many poached species within the next few months after their discovery and description in journals. Every animal and insects are potential targets: birds, mollusks, butterflies, toads, snakes or lezards. But there is a major market for amphibians and reptiles. In 2015, a new species of leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus ebenaui), endemic of Madagascar, was poached and exported in Europe only 4 months after its description in a scientific article. Another example, in 2013, a venomous light blue frog (Dendrobates galactonotus) living in Brazilian Amazonia was already sold in Europe three months after its discovery.

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Leaf-tailed gecko
Source : https://www.flickr.com/photos/42244964@N03/11425213806/
© Frank Vassen

  • Break the trust relationship established between scientists and local population which tolerated or helped researchers

To discover or rediscover, unknown or disappeared species, biologists often need the support of locals such as guides or source of information as they have better knowledge of the ecosystem in which they live rather than foreign scientists.

With the help of locals a researchers team found traces of the monk Saki of Vanzolini (Pithecia vanzollinii) in Amazonia. This saki with golden legs and neck had not been seen alive since the 30s – by scientists, that being said, the animal was often hunted by villagers of the region.

During their research on biodiversity within agricultural lands in New South Wales in Australia, D. Lindenmayer and B. Scheele had to obtain the trust of land owners and local agricultors. They located population of an endemic endangered species, the gecko without legs Apreasia parapulchella, its latin name, and published the precise GPS coordinates of their location in a wildlife atlas open to the public. Shortly after, poachers ventured into the agricultural lands looking for this precious lizard, degrading the environment on their way, for the greatest displeasure of the farmers. These incidents can alienate local population against scientists, preventing the setting up of a cooperation yet crucial to identify and protect vulnerable species.

  • Accelerate the destruction of natural habitats

The simple human intrusion in sensitive ecosystem can be harmful and poachers, by taking away rare species from their natural environment, are not the only actors in environment degradation. Curious or enthusiasts, that love to observe or take picture of species or that want to collect animals or plants threatening willingly or not biodiversity.

Leaving location data for protection

According to D. Lindenmayer and B. Scheele, it is very important to weigh the pros and cons before publishing precise information on new found species such as their GPS coordinates. The authors admit that the transparency of research should be preserved in publications but with parsimony in specific cases:

  • Leaving out location data, when they are about rare species with a commercial value on the black market and attracting to poachers.
  • Partial disclosure of location data, if the concerned species are only in moderate danger. The authors advise to be vague and limit the access of precise data to a limited and legitimate public such as governments and scientists that make a request. This approach is risky; however, even vague information is sufficient to attract poachers that will manage to track a species. They can for example bribe locals with large amounts of money to get this more precise information.
  • No restriction on location data, if the species has not risk of suffering from perverted effects.

Such a censorship of data can hold off research but in order to justify their recommendations, the authors remind us that it is already used in other fields of research such as archeology and paleontology. Thus, the precise location of excavations is held secret to avoid fossils pillage and artefacts, also with great value to the black market.

Actions far from being sufficient

Inherent risks incurred by species following the publications listed above are already starting to be taken into account by some governments, organizations and scientific journals such as PLOS One and Zootaxa. Therefore, two new gecko species, from the Goniurosaurus, kadoorierorum and kwangsiensis, discovered in 2015 still in Southern China were described in an article published by Zootaxa without their location being disclosed. This information is restricted to researchers and qualified governmental agencies. Furthermore, the International Commission on Zoologic Nomenclature (ICZN), which regulates the use of scientific names for animals amongst zoologists, does not force to disclose the GPS coordinates of new found species while the UICN forbids the publication of this data for endangered species susceptible to be victims of poaching.

However, these actions are far from being enough. Lots of scientists keep including these location data in their publications for precision, accuracy and transparence purposes of research. According to D. Lindenmayer and B. Scheele, it goes the same way for the responsibility of journals and scientists, as individuals to assess the risks, take actions and respect them to protect species from poaching. Furthermore, authors regret the lack of data management. Information on the location of some endangered species are already disclosed, are still freely accessible online, in database from governments or NGOs. For example, it is the case of the emblematic black cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus), living in Australia and in Papua-New-Guinea. Its price goes up to 100 000 australian dollars on the black market for a couple in reproductive age.

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Other problematic steps: the absence of regulation or means to enforce the laws onsite. Only 8% out of the 10 200 species of reptiles are covered in the international regulation established by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Despite the interdiction of trade of wild species in effect in Brazil, the frog Dendrobates galactonotus was quickly found on the international market. Enforcing laws is particularly difficult and costly when it comes to endangered or new found species. This sort of trade easily falls between the cracks…

  • To learn more on this fight against poaching and wild species smuggling, scourges for biodiversity:
  • A report from the WWF on the « Fight against criminality linked to endangered wild species ».
  • The actions from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
  • The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge, a contest of innovations to fight illegal trade of wild fauna, organized by the American governmental agency USAID in partnership with National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and TRAFFIC, a NGO founded by WWF and UICN.

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