Are Scientists Making Animal Trafficking Worse?

Fagjun | Published 2017-05-28 08:22

The Chinese cave gecko is an endangered species that has become popular among poachers.
[Photo by Eugene Shanhizy]

Animal trafficking of endangered species may become possible after scientists publish studies on the discovery of these species.

With the advent of digital copies of research papers, poachers now have access to troves of information on endangered animals. Thus, these poachers have the opportunity to capture rare animals and put them up for sale. Take for example the Chinese cave gecko. Soon after an article describing this animal came out in the early 2000s, illegal trade of the geckos began. A Google search can lead you to pages like this, which advertise the sale of these endangered animals.

Are poachers poring through scientific papers to look for information on rare species? It seems so. Instead of helping conservation efforts, scientific research may be making the problem of animal trafficking worse.

The Downsides of Transparency

Poachers became interested in the the pink-tailed worm-lizard after a study on the animal came out.
[Photo by Jules Farquhar]

A recent essay argues that scientists may need to be more discerning of the information they publish. Now that everything is online, it's much easier for poachers to find new animals to exploit. Worse, it's also easier for unsuspecting customers to fall for the sales pitch. Some sites for illegal wildlife trade have moved to the dark web to cover their tracks and keep operations running.

Animal trafficking is illegal because it harms animal populations. For example, wildlife trade can transmit disease from one area to another and cause devastating impacts on native species.

Scientists make it a point to be completely transparent about their studies. Transparency and open access are important aspects of the publication of scientific knowledge. However, if transparency and open access are actively harming the species in these studies, then maybe they can be partially done away with.

The authors of the essay say that they've experienced what it's like for poachers to exploit their study. David Lindenmayer and Ben Scheele, the authors, published a study on the endangered pink-tailed worm-lizard. Soon after the study's publication, the landowners that Lindenmayer and Scheele worked with began catching trespassers on their properties. These trespassers found out where they can look for the rare endangered animals because they found the study online.

Poachers aren't the only ones causing problems. Some wildlife enthusiasts who may be a tad too enthusiastic use scientific papers to track down rare or unusual animals. These overenthusiastic enthusiasts often seek to photograph or physically handle the animals featured in the studies. This can cause distress in the animals and lead to habitat destruction.

Stopping Animal Trafficking

Poaching introduced a skin-eating fungus that nearly wiped out entire populations of the fire salamander.
[Photo by William Warby]

Lindenmayer and Scheele thus ask scientists to consider whether or not revealing certain information will harm or benefit conservation efforts. In cases where species will be quite popular among animal trafficking circles, scientists might want to keep certain information to themselves. Keeping mum on the location of these species may deter poachers from finding and exploiting the animals.

Biology won't be the only field to keep information like this under wraps. Paleontologists and archaeologists have been doing it for a long time. These fields deal with ancient, potentially priceless artifacts that can fetch quite the price on the black market. Thus, paleontologists and archaeologists routinely keep the location of their digs a secret.

To stop animal trafficking and poaching, biologists may need to rethink old practices in terms of modern situations and concerns.

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