Do not publish: Limiting open-access information on rare and endangered species will help to protect them
lterrat's bookmarks 2017-05-30
Increasingly, the dual-use research dilemma (3), in which research can have both substantial positive but also negative impacts, is pervading research on rare and endangered species, with information intended to aid conservation fueling illegal actions that harm biodiversity. 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. Restricting information entails some costs, but these must be weighed against the increasing harm of unrestricted information accessibility.
At least three key issues associated with unrestricted access to information on rare and endangered species warrant careful attention. These risks are not new but are greatly exacerbated in an era of digital proliferation and open access. First, unrestricted access to species location information is facilitating a surge in wildlife poaching (4, 5), with many species at risk (6). Poaching has been documented in species within months of their taxonomic description in journals (4). For example, more than 20 newly described reptile species have been targeted in this way, potentially leading to extinction in the wild. Indeed, when the names of some of these species—such as the Chinese cave gecko, Goniurosaurus luii (see the photo)—are typed into a search engine, the text autopopulates to suggest a search to purchase these animals.
Second, unrestricted access to location data and habitat descriptions can disrupt the often delicate relationships between scientists and landowners. We have personal experience of this. Our research in Australia on restoring farmland biodiversity requires repeated access to farms and depends on high levels of trust among landholders. We have detected populations of endangered species such as the pinktailed worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella). Our research permits demand that location records be uploaded to open-access government wildlife atlases. Soon after uploading records, people seeking the rare wormlizard were caught trespassing, upsetting farmers, damaging important rocky outcrop habitats, and jeopardizing scientistfarmer relationships that have taken years to establish.
Third, unrestricted access to species information has the potential to accelerate habitat destruction and create other negative disturbances. The digital age has brought a desire among many nature enthusiasts to observe, photograph, and sometimes remove animals and plants (7). Animal behavior and habitats are often heavily disturbed in the process (8)."