Tracking Wildlife for Science Could Actually Help Poachers

Incidents of abuse raise concerns about the unintended consequences of pinpointing an animal’s location.

Hackers have infiltrated government websites, invaded corporate databases, and may have even helped to sway the results of the U.S. presidential election. Now researchers warn that cyber criminals might set their sights on another target: animal tracking data.

Scientists have long used radio signals to follow tagged animals, glean valuable insights into their behavior, and in some cases protect them from exploitation. In recent years advances in technology have made it possible to pinpoint a creature’s exact location using the steady pings from satellites.

Researchers in South Africa, for instance, have implanted GPS trackers in the horns of rhinos so that they can help save them from poachers who target the rare animals. The devices set off an alarm if an animal’s movements seem uncharacteristic and rapid.

But the very information collected to better safeguard animals could be misused by poachers, says Steven Cooke, a biology professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University who has tracked the location of fish for research projects.

“Being able to put on a map exactly where animals are in space in time, that’s what one needs to exploit them,” says Cooke, also the lead author of a recent paper published in the journal Conservation Biology.

It’s hard to quantify how often hackers have actually tried to access this type of information. The paper points to one example from 2013 in which a failed attempt was made to retrieve the location of an endangered Bengal tiger at the Panna Tiger Reserve in central India. The head of a tiger monitoring program, Krishnamurthy Ramesh, received an email that alerted him to an attempt to access his professional email account, which held the location of the rare cat. The incident prompted the program’s managers to deploy drones for surveillance and set up wireless sensors to detect human intrusions into the forest.

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