In January 2014, wildlife biologist Zeeshan Mirza was on cloud nine. The tarantula he and his colleagues had come across was a new species: slightly bigger than the palm of your hand and a stunning iridescent blue. Confirming it with genetic studies, they named it the Psychedelic Tarantula, Thrigmopoeus psychedelicus . As is usual with species discoveries, they described it in a scientific journal and gave a generic location of its distribution in the southern Western Ghats.
But eight months later, happiness turned to horror. The arachnid was available for sale in online exotic pet markets in Europe and America. “I was heartbroken,” says Mirza. “We did not even give the exact location of the tarantula in the study. But people still seem to have collected and smuggled them. I asked myself if I should even describe the other species I had found.”
This raises a question for every scientist, nature enthusiast and wildlife photographer in India: can their scientific communications with geographical details, or photographs tagged with locations really endanger wildlife?
On June 17, the National Tiger Conservation Authority requested all its tiger range States to not circulate tiger photographs and camera-trap images in the public domain—including on Whatsapp and Facebook—as they could be used to identify individual tigers and thus aid in wildlife crime.
Tigers are territorial animals, says Kerala’s Chief Wildlife Warden K.J. Varughese. “Posting photographs on Facebook with locations makes this information available to a large number of people.
Currently, while there is no restriction on tourists sharing photographs of tigers taken on safaris in tourism zones, we would advise tourists to refrain from doing so for the sake of tigers,” he says.
The issue is not new. Some years ago, national parks in Africa warned of the danger to wildlife from tourists sharing photos on social media sites.
Safari camps and vehicles began to carry signs that asked tourists to turn off the geo-tag function of their cameras. It became especially dangerous in the context of sedentary animals like rhinos that stay in the same spot for several days.
Err on the side of caution
Many professional wildlife photographers too advise caution while geo-tagging photographs or revealing locations of rhinos, tigers, and other wildlife as well.
Ramki Sreenivasan, co-founder of Conservation India (an Indian forum for wildlife conservation) and co-author of a guide to ethical photography, says that the less data on specific whereabouts about rare and endangered species out there, the better for wildlife. “Given how precariously poised some species are to extinction, I would err on the side of caution: every individual lost is a huge and irreversible loss,” he says.
Documentary photographer and National Geographic Young Explorer Prasenjeet Yadav says he reveals only the larger landscape that his subjects are located in—like the Eastern Himalayas or the southern Western Ghats. “A lot of photographers do this now. The species is your priority; your pictures or research, secondary.”
Scientists, however, are one group who often have to use species locations while describing geographical ranges in their scientific publications. However, this information is now being used by illegal animal collectors to procure species from the wild.
This is a global issue that scientists from the Threatened Species Recovery Hub highlighted in their recent essay in the journal Science . Titled ‘Do not Publish,’ the essay says that “Biologists must urgently unlearn parts of their centuries-old publishing culture and rethink the benefits of publishing location data and habitat descriptions for rare and endangered species to avoid unwittingly contributing to further species declines.”
The risks to wildlife are “greatly exacerbated in an era of digital proliferation and open access,” says the essay. It cites examples of poaching cases that occurred within months of a species’ taxonomic description in journals. For instance, over 20 newly described reptile species were targeted, “potentially leading to extinction in the wild”. “Indeed, when the names of some of these species—such as the Chinese cave gecko—are typed into a search engine, the text autopopulates to suggest a search to purchase these animals. The Chinese cave gecko has high economic value, and in such cases, “withholding information may be the only option.”
But how relevant is this in India where illegal wildlife trade is usually seen as a locally-aided enterprise? Collectors and traders are looking for information on where to find popular trade species, and are also looking for new ‘products’, says researcher Uttara Mendiratta, who studies wildlife crime in India. “While it is true that traders dealing in illegal wildlife are often connected to local suppliers through a network of middle-men, researchers in India too should take a cautionary approach towards what information they publish given that some of the targeted species are rare with small populations,” she says.
Smaller but more endangered
Some of India’s reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates come ahead of the large, charismatic mammals in this list of rare species whose numbers are few. These ‘less charismatic’ animals include the red-crowned roof turtle found in Northeast India, which the International Union of Conservation of Nature lists as ‘Critically Endangered’—that is, more endangered than India’s national animal. The issue is taxa-specific, agrees Sanjay Molur, founder and chief editor of the Journal of Threatened Taxa , an Indian peer-reviewed journal that publishes species descriptions. “There is a need to be discreet in the case of smaller, lesser-known species, which enforcement does not really care for, such as reptiles and tarantulas.”
In many cases, collectors even obtain species that have not yet been described. Mirza says he knows of several unidentified tarantula species in the online exotic pet trade. According to Molur, this happens in the foreign aquarium pet trade too, when collectors and hobbyists sometimes describe freshwater fish species that have never been recorded before.
In the case of the Psychedelic Tarantula, poachers got to the species despite Mirza and his teammates giving only generic locations. "This shows that with their networks, poachers do not even need locality information from scientists to track down animals in India," says Mirza.
What is needed in this highly-connected electronic era is enforcement of existing policies, says Molur. “Our strategy should not be to ban science or communication, but to have proper enforcement to deal with wildlife crimes,” he says. In the case of tigers that can move 5 to 30 kilometres in a day, even radio-tracking them in real time cannot protect them from poachers, says tiger biologist Ullas Karanth. “The real issue is to keep criminals away from tigers and not harass photographers, who are supportive of tiger conservation,” he says.