Scientists urged to keep rare species habitat secret

Publication date
Friday, 26 May 2017

Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) are calling for location data to be withheld from research publications to help protect some rare and endangered species.

Lead researcher Professor David Lindenmayer from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society said more than 20 newly-described species have been targeted by poachers.

“Wildlife poachers are able to access online reports and publications at a click of a button. In the past it could only be accessed through hard copies and library basements,” said Professor David Lindenmayer.

“In some cases, as soon as some animals are described, they can be poached to extinction in the wild.”

Professor Lindenmayer said in Australia people were trespassing on private property days after research was published online on the pink tail worm lizard.

“It didn’t take long before we started getting phone calls from land owners saying they had people digging up the rocky areas where they live,” said Professor Lindenmayer.

Dr Benjamin Scheele, also from the Fenner School of Environment and Society, said for hundreds of years the best practice for ecologists was to publish as much detail as possible, but this school of thought needed to change.

“There are a lot of benefits to open access online journals including an increased public awareness of science and citizen science participation, but for some species this benefit needs to be weighed against the risk of increased poaching” he said.

“People are just starting to withhold specific habitat and location information from publications which is promising. It shows that it is still possible to publish new scientific descriptions without including the location data. 

“We argue that researchers are best placed to judge the risk to a species, so author self-censorship may currently be the best option to stop this crucial information getting used for the wrong reasons.”

Both authors are supported by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Science Programme to carry out research that improves the management of Australia’s threatened species.

The essay has been published in Science.