"Cyberpoaching" Feared as New Threat to Rare Wildlife

Email hacking incident in India raises concerns, conservationists say.

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

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.