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The world's biggest bloom, Rafflesia flower, from Southeast Asia. Source: Wikimedia Commons
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Should you share location data of threatened species?

24 July 2018
Surveillance need not always be a bad thing
Should people decline nature 'selfies' to save species from the hordes and keep location data secret? Analysis of diverse case studies shows the benefits of sharing information can in some cases outweigh the risks.

Scientists publishing locations of rare species have been blamed for helping poachers drive them to extinction, such as the local extinction of the Chinese cave gecko.

But an international group of scientists lead by Dr Ayesha Tulloch from the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland believes that data publishing is important to help many species.

The findings are published today in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Exact population locations of Australia's night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis), recently rediscovered in the arid zone of Australia, were kept secret; however historical published data is helping conservation managers to understand the species better. Credit Nicholas P. Leseberg.

Exact population locations of the recently rediscovered elusive night parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis), in the arid zone of Australia, were kept secret; however historical published data is helping conservation managers to understand the species better. Credit Nicholas P. Leseberg. Top of page: Researchers recommend data  about Malaysia’s Rafflesia be published with restrictions to protect populations from tourists and poachers. Photo by SofianRafflesia via Wikimedia Commons.

“Species, like Australia’s tiny grassland earless dragon, have received greater environmental protection because published data was available to show that they were in trouble,” said Dr Tulloch.

“The challenge is to share data in a way that avoids perverse outcomes such as local species extinctions from human exploitation.

“It is undeniable that in some cases, poachers have used published data to hunt down rare animals for the illegal wildlife trade.

“And even well-meaning people like bird watchers and sight seers can sometimes do damage when enough of them trample a patch of habitat.

“Which is why scientists and conservationists have continually called on location data to be turned off in nature photos to help preserve species.

A key aspect is identifying whether poaching or disturbance from eager spectators poses a threat.
Dr Ayesha Tulloch

“But stopping all data publishing is not the answer. Data publishing has also led to improved protection and conservation for many species. 

“Good data helps conservation managers know where action is needed.”

Dr Tulloch - whose affiliations include The Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions and the Threatened Species Recovery Hub of the National Environmental Science Program; and the Desert Ecology Research Group - said sharing data takes a balanced approach.

To address the challenge, Dr Tulloch, along with Professors Chris Dickman and Glenda Wardle from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, collaborated with local and international scientists to design a framework to help researchers and conservationists choose how to share sensitive data.

“A key aspect is identifying whether poaching, illegal trade or disturbance from eager spectators really poses a real threat which can’t be managed," Dr Tulloch said.

“Then there are a number of ways you can deal with that data, such as only showing locations in 100km grid squares, that could allow it to be published without putting those species at risk.

“The sharing of species information is here to stay; being clear about the pros and cons of making the data public will ensure that species are not put in more danger from new data being out in the public domain.”

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