Call to keep secrets on rare species draws reluctant support

By Warren Cornwall

The extent to which rare animal poachers piggyback on scientific research became clear to Mark Auliya soon after he published a 2012 paper announcing the discovery of the Borneo earless monitor lizard (Lanthanotus borneensis) in a new part of the southeast Asian island.

The conservation biologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Leipzig, Germany, had left the lizards’ location vague, in an attempt to shield the animal from collectors and their suppliers. Nevertheless, within a year, the lizard was turning up outside Borneo.

After scientists published a paper documenting a new 
population of earless monitor lizards in Borneo, poachers
 moved in.

So Auliya embraces a new call, published today in Science, for scientists to keep mum about details that could turn rare and sought-after species into the next easy target for the global wild animal trade. “It’s terrible,” he says. “If you describe a new species in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you should probably only list the country.” In today’s Perspective, two Australian conservation biologists urge scientists to adopt a policy of strategic “self-censorship” to shield the animals and plants they study. For species that are likely targets for collectors, they urge scientists to share detailed information about where the species is found only with government agencies, while hiding it from the public.

Such secrecy runs counter to the imperative to share research with the scientific world, and the push to make it quickly and widely available. But that openness is taking a devastating toll, says David Lindenmayer, the article’s lead author and a conservation biologist at The Australian National University in Canberra.  “For some of the really important species, if we don’t do something they’re going to get wiped off the map.”

He was alerted to the intensity of the problem in 2016, when he got a call from a landowner about people tearing apart rocky outcrops with crowbars. Lindenmayer figured out that the interlopers were on the hunt for the rare pink-tailed worm-lizard (Aprasia parapulchella), a bizarre legless gecko that grows to 15 centimeters, spends its life in rocky fissures in Australia, feeds on ants, and squeaks when picked up. The animal’s location at the farm was first reported just weeks earlier, from information the government requires Lindenmayer to provide in an open-access online database.

Since then, he has gathered accounts from fellow scientists about a host of species targeted for poaching shortly after their discovery was published. He fears that this pressure has only increased as new scientific research becomes available to the world with the click of a mouse. “The era of online data, of open-access data, data in real time, all those kinds of things, opens up a whole new set of opportunities for people who want to poach animals,” he says.

This entanglement of science and poaching isn’t new, says Mark Burgman, a conservation biologist at Imperial College London, and editor-in-chief of the journal Conservation Biology. Neither is the use of scientific subterfuge to foil thieves. The pressure is acute for rare or unusual species sought by collectors: amphibians, orchids, birds, and reptiles—particularly venomous snakes. One paper he published about the discovery of a plant included a map that had been manipulated to make the location indiscernible. He worked with the journal to create the altered map. In Australia in the 1980s, he managed a database for state government that listed the locations of certain species only down to within roughly a hundred kilometers, to make them harder to find.

Burgman says secrecy should be handled on a case-by-case basis between scientists and sources of scientific information, such as journals. Any secret information can be revealed to other scientists or government officials on a need-to-know basis.

But there are drawbacks to shielding new data, says Bryan Stuart, a herpetologist at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. Information about a species’ location can be crucial to guiding conservation efforts. And such information can still leak out through avenues such as museum collections, he says. “I believe that withholding locality data is only a temporary measure,” he wrote in an email.

Stuart co-wrote a 2006 letter in Science urging scientists to try to address the poaching problem by working closely with conservation managers to have protections for the species in place when the research is published. He acknowledges, however, that this approach won’t always succeed.

Auliya, meanwhile, hopes the new attention might revive his attempt to host a workshop where scientists can hash out guidelines for how to publish their findings without imperiling the very species they are studying. In 2012 he tried to arrange such a gathering, but couldn’t get it funded. 

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