Conservationists Who Tag Wild Animals May Expose Them to Poachers

This is an instance were conservationists can inadvertently achieve the exact opposite to their goal. It is an example where weaknesses in technology allow traders in wildlife and body parts to get the better of conservation organisations. And technology is becoming more and more useful and used in conservation of wildlife making the problem more pressing.

Tagged Lion
Tagged Lion
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It appears that hunters and poachers intercept signals from the tags placed around the neck of animals by conservationists to track wild animals. Tagging wild animals allows conservationists to better understand them: to understand their movements, their habitat and their habits.

There appears to be two kinds of tagging devices: one is a radio transmitter and the other is based upon GPS (global positioning system). The GPS system is based upon satellite communication and is the same system that people use to navigate roads when driving.

Sadly, it also seems that the scientists who place these tags onto wild animals are embarrassed by the fact that the devices are being used against their objectives and therefore they keep quiet about it. The problem is not normally reported in scientific literature. The stories appear on blogs such as this one. The answer is to make the devices more secure so that poachers and their paymasters are unable to hack into them.

Radio transmitters are easier to hack into. The frequency of the radio transmitter is classified but a poacher can pick up the signal if within range. This happened to 8 grey wolves in Yellowstone National Park, all of whom where shot dead.

The satellite-based tagging system can send data to conservationists through their email accounts. The accounts can be accessed by skilled and determined hackers. This allows poachers to track down the animals and kill them.

Tagged Lion
Tagged Lion

We are all aware of the fragility of the banking system which is now frequently conducted online. Many billions of dollars and pounds are reimbursed to bank account holders annually because their accounts have been hacked and stolen. The banks keep quiet about this. Banking accounts are meant to be secure but they are still hacked. GPS animal tagging systems are less secure than bank accounts system which tells us that it is easier for a skilled person to hack into conservationists’ email accounts.

Another weakness in computer systems is when people i.e. tourists take photographs of wildlife with their cameras and their cameras have a GPS system so that the photograph is tagged with the location of the animal. When the tourist publishes their photographs online poachers can find out exactly where the animal was photographed. Researchers have stopped publishing details of some rare species’ locations for this reason.

It would seem that modern technology has opened the door to poachers. This is an inadvertent spin-off of advancements in technology used by conservationists. Steps are being taken to ensure that these devices and their data are not used for illegal purposes by protecting tag IDs and encrypting data.

Source: Times Newspaper March 2nd 2017 (hard copy).

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