National Geographic News
A tiger is fitted with a radio tracking collar by researchers in Thailand.

A tiger is fitted with a radio tracking collar by researchers in Thailand.

Photograph by Steve Winter, National Geographic

Sasha Ingber

for National Geographic

Published October 10, 2013

Hackers have broken into the websites of banks, news outlets, social media, and the government, but could key information on the whereabouts of endangered species be targeted as well?

Possibly, say conservationists: An incident in India has some concerned that wildlife poachers could use the Internet as another resource for criminal activity.

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

The tiger, a two-and-a-half-year-old male, had been fitted with a nearly $5,000 collar with both satellite and ground-tracking capabilities in February 2013. The collar was configured to provide GPS data every hour for the first three months and every four hours for 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)—had tried to access his email.

The attempt was promptly prevented by the server. Even if the GPS data had been obtained, it is encrypted and can be decoded only with specialized data-converter software and specific radio-collar product information, said Ramesh.

"They couldn't even see the data—it would look like unusual numbers or symbols," he said.

It's unknown who was trying to access the data, or if it was simply an innocent mistake. The forest department of the state that contains the reserve, Madhya Pradesh, has started an inquiry in collaboration with the police.

Even so, the situation prompted Ramesh and others to consider the potential that online data about endangered species could fall into the wrong hands.

Wildlife Sales Go Virtual

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

According to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), special agents with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began spotting online sale postings for frozen tiger cubs in the late 1990s. (Read about a live tiger cub that was found in luggage in Thailand in 2010.)

By July 2012, the wildlife-trade monitoring network TRAFFIC found 33 tiger products on Chinese online auction websites, including bracelets, pendants, and tiger-bone glue. Ads even promoted "blood being visible in items."

Such online sales are part of a bigger wildlife-trafficking industry, which the conservation nonprofit WWF estimates to be worth $7.8 to $10 billion per year.

Traffickers have reason to shift their efforts to the Internet: They can be anonymous and camouflage their intentions with code words, such as "ox bone," which has been used to describe illegal elephant ivory items sold through eBay.

What's more, online transactions can happen quickly and customers can come from virtually any corner of the world. These factors, as well as the difficulty of establishing jurisdiction when a trafficker is caught, pose stark challenges for police and enforcement agencies.

Whether or not the Indian incident was a thwarted attempt at poaching, wildlife-governance specialist Andrew Zakharenka of the Washington, D.C.-based Global Tiger Initiative points out that "with increasing income and connectivity to the Internet, especially in developing countries, there is a threat of increased demand for wildlife products."

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

According to Shivani Bhalla, National Geographic explorer and lion conservationist, "Poaching is completely different than the way it used to be in the eighties."

She's heard documented stories of "tech-savvy wildlife crime groups who know to enter wildlife areas and kill so many animals."

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

Technology Aids Conservation

Even so, technological advances can also be used to increase conservation successes.

Just four years ago, virtually every tiger in Madhya Pradesh had been lost to poaching. Even forest officials—from guards to officers—were involved in the suppression of poaching evidence and tiger death cases, according to an internal report filed by the reserve's field director.

But thanks to a tiger reintroduction and monitoring program—touted as one of the most successful in the world—the reserve now has 22 tigers. There are fewer than 2,000 Bengal tigers left in the wild. (See "Tigers Making a Comeback in Parts of Asia.")

"Technology has been a great support in Panna, and in fact, the tiger population recovery has advanced because of security-based monitoring involving such technology," said Ramesh.

Conservationist Bhalla, who heads the organization Ewaso Lions, believes the collars provide vital information on behavior and movement, especially in human-dominated landscapes. For instance, on September 5, an eight-year-old male lion was shot, beheaded, and partially burned as retribution by villagers in northern Kenya.

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

"The last [geographical] point we received was at 8 a.m.," said Bhalla. "The collar was able to tell us that he had been killed, where he had been killed, and we were able to track it straight to the community"—a remote village in Samburu.

Ramesh added that the advantages of technology outweigh the drawbacks.

"I tend to think we're better placed than the poacher in terms of the technology, while not underestimating the desperation involved in poaching big cats," he said. (See tiger pictures.)

Stepping Up Security

Since the possible hacking attempt, the collared tiger in Satpura Tiger Reserve has been seen more than three times and photographed twice. Ramesh said that a dedicated team stays within 1,600 feet (500 meters) of the tiger at all times to deter poachers.

The incident has also pushed Ramesh and colleagues to ramp up Panna's security.

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

"We shall surely counter technology-based threats from poachers, if they ever resort to them," Ramesh said.

Court W
Court W

The solution to this entire issue is not to quit researching or tagging animals, the solution is redesign the tags to make them less invasive without taking away scientists means of research in their entirety. Current tags are, by design, effective in collecting research but prove too invasive. The ideal redesign for most of the tag types would include it being internal. Why that seems more invasive, the tag itself being within the animal eliminates most of the physical dangers caused by the placement of tags. To do this, a more compact data retrieval device must be designed and tested.In my own prototype designs I have used the radio tracking identification tag (RFID), commonly used in the task of returning stray household pets to their distraught owners, and reconstructed it with active data logging system and battery. The RFID tag is compact, measuring 11.5 mm (the size of an uncooked grain of rice), as well as it is biocompatible which means that the material used to make it is nontoxic and will not harm the animal . But it is a passive tag and has no battery source, remaining inert in the animal until being scanned for information. I believe that this, in combination with active tags, is the great start to a breakthrough in the design of researching tags. With some effort and engineering, an active tag with the ability of an external archival pop-up tag can be condensed to the size of a RFID tag.

For external tags that cannot be redesigned as an internal tag, we must improve methods of attachment. The common break-away collars used on household pets can be the basis of a new design. The collar is secure enough to remain on the animal for a good stint of time but will pop off and allow the animal to go freely without the tag causing an issue. In designs I have worked on the break-away collar clip replaces the lock, which currently keeps the collar in place until removed by researchers, to allow the animal to free itself if and when the collar catches on something and traps the animal. When the collar clips break, a built in security mechanism would trigger a notice to be sent to the computer tracking the animal to inform the researcher of the issue and let them retrieve the collar for future use. I also think the antenna built on the outside of the collar is an accident waiting to happen when, like most electronics today, the antenna can be built into the collar. In my redesign with the new clasp and internal antenna, the commonly used tracking collars can be made a lot safer for the animals. These improvements seem simplistic but by using innovating thinking we can improve the quality of research as well as protect the animals.

M. Chase
M. Chase

If the world has come to the point where you can poach over the internet, then it's obvious the internet has to much influence over the world.

Sarah L.
Sarah L.

We also need to start a program where retired war vets can be trained as guards in these parks. They could be extremely usefull in the battle against poaching. Why let their training go to waste?

Sarah L.
Sarah L.

What if the hacker has ties to Ramesh and the project itself? Traffickers posing as conservationists is nothing new...

Pierre Leonard
Pierre Leonard

There always has been, and there always will be, people who want to hunt and to kill, for all sorts of reasons. Some people will pay BIG money for the 'privilege' of shooting a big game animal. The only way to properly ensure that these animals have a future, is to take their money, lead them to some sick or old elephant, tiger, or whatever, let them shoot it, and turn simple economics against the poachers. You can't expect the good folk of, for instance, Africa, to look after the animals out of the goodness of their hearts.

Maayan Lantzman
Maayan Lantzman

Wow! Great article! I used it for my current event article. It is really sad though, I wish there was someway to help the tigers. (Tigers are my favorite animals.)

Sajid Iqbal
Sajid Iqbal

Both Bangladesh And India government is constructing a 1300 MW coal fired power plant near 14 km of Sundarbans!!!  After that non can save Sundarbans. The plant is called Rampal Power Plant. We need international support and support to stop this!!

Jimmy Borah
Jimmy Borah

A mistake in the article: 

You say "Just four years ago, virtually every tiger in Madhya Pradesh had been lost to poaching"

It happened only in Panna tiger reserve, not in entire Madhya Pradesh.

Sarah L.
Sarah L.

So then how do we explain to them (the locals who live with these animals long after Mr. Rich flies home in his jet) that only those with big wallets and money to burn are allowed to poach...hunt...whatever you want to call it? "Conserve, don’t kill the wildlife, live is peace with them...expect you over there with the cash- you can kill whatever you want). I assume that the guides are highly trained and able to tell which individuals are sick and old (remember even old individuals can be fit enough to be dominant and thus are not expendable and can contribute progeny to the next generation). Where does the money go from the hunt? And can we trust it actually gets there? This approach may work for certain species but hunting a critically endangered species is purely about ego. I would tell these murderers who like to hunt those species to take their money and fat heads and go home- no money is better than dirty money. It’s like accepting children’s clothing donations from human traffickers...not worth it. Lastly; when has throwing money at a problem ever really fixed anything?

Maayan Lantzman
Maayan Lantzman

Continuing what I was saying: I can’t believe that someone would try to hack an e-mail to try to fine the where-abouts of the tiger and use him for poaching. The numbers of tigers are decreasing! 

This is very sad that people are poaching these poor animals. I don’t understand why they are doing this. I guess looking at their point of view; they could be doing it for money. But then still, you are wiping them out, and then if you wipe them out there will be no more tigers. If you stopped poaching them there would be more. No matter what though, poaching is an awful thing to do! Rules may help decrease the number of animals poached, but is there really a way to stop poaching entirely.

Debby Wakefield
Debby Wakefield

@Sajid Iqbal  I appreciate your posted comment with critical information. Here follows my concerns. This is directed to the 1300MW coal fired power plant under construction near Sundarbans.

Coal fired power plants are considered to be extremely toxic to the environment. This IS a known documented fact. Knowing this information and continuing to construct this coal fired power plant would be blatantly ignoring that all life breathing the highly toxic air could cause critical illnesses and in some cases death. Also portions of toxic emissions will travel with the wind and all life there will suffer too. So vegetative growth, insects, reptiles, animals and humans will suffer all for just 1300 MW. This plant that is under construction should stop and Research world wide for other solutions to provide power. There are several solutions that would keep all life in that area from suffering.  It may take one day to come up with a clean air solution to 1300MW coal fired plant and this 'one day' will prevent catastrophic consequents. Please care for your environment here on Earth. These emissions cause more damage to our atmosphere also. If we do not take care of our atmosphere then we cease to exist.

Sasha Ingber
Sasha Ingber

@Jimmy Borah You're quite right. We've corrected that to make it clear. Thanks for noticing and for reading the article!  

Sajid Iqbal
Sajid Iqbal

@Debby Wakefield very true! I wonder why International Organizations working for the conservation of the Mangrove forest are still silent! 


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