“Cyberpoaching” Feared as a New Threat to Rare Wildlife

Hackers have entered the websites of banks, news, social networks, and the government, but could key information about the location of endangered species be targeted as well?

Perhaps, environmentalists say: An incident in India is a bit of a concern that savage poachers could use the Internet as another means of criminal activity.

In July, Krishnamurthy Ramesh, head of the monitoring program at Panna Tiger Reserve in central India, received an email warning him of an attempt to access his professional email account. His mailbox contained the encrypted geographical location of an endangered Bengal tiger. (See an interactive National Geographic magazine about big cats in danger.)

The tiger, a two-and-a-half-year-old man, was equipped with a nearly $ 5,000 collar with both satellite and ground-tracking capabilities in February 2013. The collar was tuned to provide GPS data every hour for the first three months and every four hours during the next five months (the collar lasts about eight months).

In July, the battery expired and the satellite feedback in the collar stopped working. Around the same time, Ramesh received the notice that someone in Pune (map) – more than 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) away from his office in Dehradun (map) – was trying to access his email.

The attempt was promptly thwarted by the server. Even if the GPS data was obtained, it is encrypted and decodable only with special data conversion software and specific radio-collar product information, Ramesh said.

“They couldn’t even see the data – it would look like unusual numbers or symbols,” he said.

It is not known who attempted to access the data, or if it was simply an innocent mistake. The forest department of the state, which contains the reserve, Madhya Pradesh, has begun an investigation in cooperation with the police.

Despite this, the situation has prompted Ramesh and others to consider the possibility that internet data on endangered species could fall into the wrong hands.

Sale of Virtual Fauna

The Internet has given new shape to the growing illegal wildlife trade.

Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spotted online sales posters for frozen tigers in the late 1990s. (Read about a live tiger cub that was found in packages in Thailand in 2010.)

By July 2012, the TRAFFIC nature trade monitoring network found 33 tiger products on Chinese online auction sites, including bracelets, pendants and tiger bone. Ads even promoted “that blood is visible in particles.”

Such online sales are part of a larger wildlife industry, which the conservative nonprofit WWF estimates is worth $ 7.8 billion to $ 10 billion a year.

Traders have reasons to shift their efforts to the Internet: They can be anonymous and camouflage their intentions with codewords, such as “beef bone,” which was used to describe illegal elephant ivory items sold through eBay.

In addition, online transactions can take place quickly and customers can come from almost any corner of the world. These factors, as well as the difficulty of establishing jurisdiction when a trafficker is caught, present severe challenges for police and law enforcement agencies.

Whether or not the Indian event was hampered by poaching, wildlife specialist Andrew Zakharenka of the Washington Global Tiger Initiative points out that “with increasing income and internet connectivity, especially in developing countries, there is a threat of increased demand for wildlife products.”

Zakharenka also said that natural criminals are increasingly using technology. He sees cell phones, SIM cards and emails involved in cases of arrested criminals repeatedly.

According to Shivani Bhalla, a researcher at National Geographic and a lion ecologist, “Poaching is quite different from what it was in the 1980s.”

She heard documented stories of “ie technological natural crime groups that know how to enter natural areas and kill so many animals.”

TRAFFIC has also reported that poachers are using increasingly advanced methods, such as veterinary drugs, to kill animals.

Conservation Conservation Technology

Despite this, technological advances can also be used to increase conservation successes.

Just four years ago, almost every tiger in Madhya Pradesh was lost to poaching. Even forest officials – from guards to officers – have been involved in the removal of poaching evidence and cases of tiger deaths, according to an internal report presented by the reserve’s field director.

But thanks to a tiger reintroduction and control program – advertised as one of the most successful in the world – the reserve now has 22 tigers. There are less than 2,000 Bengal tigers left in the wild. (See “Tigers Returning In Parts Of Asia.”)

“Technology has been an excellent support in Panna, and in fact, the recovery population of tigers has progressed due to security monitoring with such technology,” Ramesh said.

Environmentalist Bhalla, who heads the Ewaso Lions organization, believes the collars provide essential information about behavior and movement, especially in man-made landscapes. For example, on 5 September, an eight-year-old male lion was shot, beheaded and partially burned as revenge by villagers in northern Kenya.

Because the animal was wearing a collar that gave real-time radio frequency signals and GPS locations, Bhalla and colleagues knew something was wrong right away.

“The last one [geographical] The point we got was at 8 in the morning, “Bhalla said.” The collar could tell us he was killed where he was killed, and we were able to track it directly to the community ”- a remote village in Samburu.

Ramesh added that the advantages of technology outweigh the disadvantages.

“I tend to think we’re better than the poacher in terms of technology, although I don’t underestimate the desperation of poaching big cats,” he said. (See tiger pictures.)

Increasing Security

Since the possible hack attempt, the collared tiger in Satpura Tiger Reserve has been seen more than three times and photographed twice. Ramesh said a diligent team always stays less than 500 meters from the tiger to discourage poachers.

The incident also prompted Ramesh and colleagues to bolster Panna’s safety.

In January, environmentalists will deploy drones for surveillance and set up wireless sensors to detect human intrusions into the forest.

“We will certainly combat technological threats from poachers if they ever use them,” Ramesh said.