Canada conservationist warns of ‘cyber poaching’

By Michel Comte — Photographers, poachers and eco-tour operators are in the crosshairs of a Canadian conservationist who warns that tracking tags are being hacked and misused to harass and hunt endangered animals. Steven Cooke, a biology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and the Canada research chair of environmental science and biology, is the lead author of a paper published this week in the journal ‘Conservation Biology’. The research paper cites the example of anglers in the US state of Minnesota who petitioned for access to data on northern pike movements, arguing it should be publicly available because the research was publicly funded.
Australian authorities have used tags to locate and cull sharks while in India, attempts were made to hack the global positioning system (GPS) collars on endangered Bengal tigers in a case of “cyber poaching.”
Cooke said it is a new phenomenon and there is no data available to quantify this “troubling and unanticipated” problem.
Scientists are scheduled to meet in June in Australia to discuss the problem as well as potential fixes.
In the meantime, Cooke is calling for encryption and strict rules to secure data and limit the use of telemetry tools for non-research activities.
In an interview with AFP, Cooke noted that natural history, ecology, conservation and resource management have all benefited from the use of electronic tagging technology.
The idea for this research came during a family vacation last summer to Banff National Park in Canada. It was then that he learned the park authority had imposed a public ban on VHF radio receivers after photographers used telemetry to track tagged animals.
Canadian officials were concerned the animals may be spooked, stressed or habituated to human interaction, which can alter their behaviour and thus influence research findings.
The tags, Cooke explained, send out pings that can be tracked with a cheap radio receiver. “So you can stalk these animals in their natural environment, instead of waiting for them to wander over to you,” he said. Following a tagged animal could also lead poachers to others in its group.
After the publication of his article Monday, Cooke said he received a call about a safari company that has been tagging animals in order to find them to show guests, rather than waiting patiently near watering holes hoping for wildlife to show up. — AFP