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Tracking animals: transparency vs security

Collared cheetahs grooming in the Namib Desert, Namibia Collared cheetahs grooming in the Namib Desert, Namibia Sam D’Cruz
13 Apr
Simple tracking devices have enabled conservationists to amass big data, vastly improving their knowledge about different species. But could this same technology be used for more nefarious means?

In August last year, Parks Canada banned possession of VHF telemetry devices within three mountain parks in Alberta and British Columbia: Banff National Park, Kootenay National Park and Yoho National Park. Citing concerns that people were unofficially utilising the devices to track down tagged animals, it became a $25,000 offence under the Canada National Parks Act to be found with one in your possession. ‘We’ve had a few incidents where we’ve suspected that people, presumably after photos, have been using scanners within their vehicles to locate wildlife,’ Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for the Banff Field Unit, told CBC.

It’s just one example of basic technology, such as tracking devices – normally used by rangers and conservationists to keep an eye on the movements of various animals in wild locations – instead being taken advantage of by opportunistic individuals for their own purposes. While photography may not appear the most harmful of activities, the constant presence of humans would nevertheless be stressful and potentially harmful for animals. ‘We just wanted to put this in place to make sure that people understand that that’s considered harassing wildlife,’ added Hunt, ‘and is no longer lawful in those parks.’

It also draws attention to the problems that could occur if people were to use the same idea for more dishonest reasons.

trackingA safari guide in Namibia uses a VHF receiver to track tagged animals (Image: Claude Huot)

‘There’s an increased sense of transparency and open data,’ explains Steven Cooke, Professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, lead author on a paper published recently which draws attention to the issues which could potentially stem from this open approach to science. ‘We throw things on our website, we have animals that are tagged that send tweets, we publish things open access. Collectively, that series of coincidences makes it easier for people to either get their hands on data legitimately and use it for nefarious purposes, or alternatively, as with the Banff example, where people were buying radio receivers and tracking animals themselves.’

As well as at Banff, Cooke et al point to a more severe case study; an attempted tiger poaching in the Panna Tiger Reserve, India, by individuals using GPS signals to track the location of a two-and-a-half-year-old male Bengal tiger. This so-called ‘cyber-poaching’ is the kind of story Cooke and his team were trawling through worldwide media stories in search of. ‘They’re being covered, potentially, in local media outlets,’ he explains, ‘but there’s no coordinated attention or evidence that this is something the scientific community is talking about. This is something we need to think about.’

wolfA wolf in Yellowstone National Park, USA (Image: Zack Frank)

Another example includes the potential for tracking and killing of wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Such case studies also pose a slightly different issue – the possibility of scientific research itself being intentionally subverted to prevent researchers obtaining the necessary data required to facilitate essential conservation measures. ‘We’re unaware of any examples of where this has been done, but we think it’s something that if somebody wanted to, could totally screw with anybody’s studies very easily,’ insists Cooke. ‘We mused about how in the future that could be a reality, a kind of sabotage.’

He illustrates a potential example of how that could play out: ‘Say there was a developer that wanted to build something, could be a dam, could be a mine, an offshore oil rig, just some large piece of infrastructure. And, as commonly happens, government or NGOs conduct studies to try and understand where animals are and use that to inform how these things are developed. So you could see scenarios where if there was the thought that an endangered species was using an area, that that could either halt or impede a development, or cost them a lot of money in compensation or mitigation strategies.’

As Cooks explains, adding conflicting tags – potentially so many that it overwhelms the telemetry tracking system – would be a very simple way to render the entire operation inoperative.

cheetahA collared male cheetah in Namiba (Image: Fitzsimage)

Part of the issue revolves around that facts that these VHF and GPS tracking technologies are relatively cheap to purchase (both the receivers and the transmitters themselves), and that no one is checking that when fitted to animals they are for positive scientific purposes. Matt Hayward, Senior Lecturer in Conservation at Bangor University, points out that – similar to the photographers in Banff – the impacts of people tracking animals for anything other than overt scientific research can be unintentionally harmful. He recalls incidents in South Africa and Namibia where wildlife managers were attaching tracking collars to rare animals such as leopards and cheetahs to increase the chances of finding them during ecotourism activities. While the obtained data was often later used by researchers, he highlights how the managers required no regulatory approval to collar and track the animals in the first place, despite the initial lack of scientific objectives. ‘The researchers are not at fault as they are using data derived from the invasive process of fitting collars,’ he insists, ‘but there are no approvals necessary – or reported – for the other organisations, and there are organisations that don’t incorporate researchers using their telemetered animals that we just don’t know about. This is the big concern.’

Creating a regulatory framework to solve instances such as this is one step in Cooke’s own response to the report; figuring out a methodology by which scientists can do a risk assessment that takes into account these potential threats when they are planning research projects, to improve the ethical standards by which such tracking is undertaken globally. It’s one of three ‘prongs’ he suggests for moving forwards. The second involves working with manufacturers of telemetry devices to develop better coding schemes and encryption strategies, to enable greater security of tracking data for the occasions in which researchers wish to better protect their subjects. Lastly, he encourages government regulation of radio frequencies. ‘For example, in Canada and the UK you can’t just run around and blast signals out to work on any frequency you want,’ he explains. ‘There’s very specific frequencies in the bandwidth that are used for very specific things, and the government can regulate who has access or can operate on them.’

turtleA female hawksbill turtle with a satellite tag glued to her shell, Australia (Image: Xavier Hoenner)

The key message is, nevertheless, that the future of science should be transparent and open access-driven, to enable as many people to obtain and utilise collected data as much as possible. With that in mind, Brendan Godley, Director of the Centre for Ecology & Conservation at the University of Exeter, who is heavily involved in the tagging of marine animals such as turtles (and says he himself has never experienced anyone exploiting such technology) focuses on the positives of sharing scientific data and discoveries.

‘In many of the cases, the “hacking“ of tracking was only one manifestation of extant conflicts, and while technological solutions may be considered, paramount is to get to the root cause of the conflict in the first place,’ he points out. ‘In other cases, even if there is no overt conflict, it may be that key stakeholders are not well enough appraised or engaged in the tracking process to own and support it. I think all of us tracking scientists need to do a better job of sharing. Whilst I am saddened by the examples given in the paper, the vast majority of sharing has been positive.’

Cooke echoes that sentiment. ‘We want that information to be accessible to the science community for sharing, yet we don’t want it to be shared with people that will use it for nefarious purposes,’ he outlines. ‘So it’s trying to find that balance, because there’s huge potential. When you can track animal movements around the world – and not just one species but can look at how the different species interact – that has a lot of power. This is all the added value that comes with data sharing. Yet, there also is risk, so we’re just trying to develop protocols to ensure that data is sharable but protected.’

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