Using GPS trackers to monitor animals in the wild is common practice for conservation biologists across the globe. They’re an amazing tool for studying migration patterns, habitat utilization and to monitor endangered species. For instance, scientists in Nepal have been using GPS technology to track the movement of the rare Snow Leopards. Providing an inside look at how they transverse across the rugged himalayan mountains, all done without the danger of trying to keep up on foot. However, with the many recent advancements in GPS technology, these trackers have opened up an all new playing field for animal poachers, taking illegal animal hunting into the cyber world.
In his recent paper published in Conservation Biology, the Carleton University biologist Steven Cooke and his colleagues are calling for the urgent need for increased cyber security for tagged animals. They cited the growing concern in which poachers could utilize tracking tags placed onto wild animals as a tool for illegal hunting. Essentially, research trackers, once hacked into, could become a red hot target marking an animal for poaching. Little research has been done on this phenomenon so far, but because most of these tags have little to no security features, the idea is that they could be easily traced by anybody.
A similar issue was raised back in 2015 when the Australian government tracked down a white shark for culling through the use of a tracking device originally intended for research. The government claimed that the female white shark posed a danger to nearby swimmers. But backlash ensured over the controversial kill order when scientists fought back, citing an infringement into a longterm research project, and that better measures could easily be taken, such as closing off the beach.
The Australian government eventually revised it’s shark culling policies, realizing that killing the tagged animal defeated the purpose of animal tracking. The movement of tagged sharks into a specific area often indicates the arrival of many others, making it a useful early warning system for swimmers and beach goers alike. Nonetheless, the entire incident was a wake up call for researchers everywhere. While the tracking devices remain vital to ecological research, they could also be leaving our precious wildlife vulnerable to attack.
There hasn’t yet been a case where GPS trackers were being directly hacked into by cyber poachers. But hacking attempts into research facilities in search of tracking data have occured in the past. In 2013 hackers attempted to break into the email account of a staff member at the Satpura-Bori tiger reserve in India, trying to get at GPS satellite data for a tracker placed on endangered Bengal tigers. Officials remain unsure whether the hacking attempt was successful, but its clear that poachers are aware that the tracking devices used by scientists can easily be used for their own material gain.
While GPS data is typically stored on secure networks, trackers emitting old fashioned radio signals are much easier to trace. In fact, Parks Canada, the Canadian national parks agency, recently banned the use of radio telemetry for wildlife management. After a bunch of photographers were caught using the data to stalk tagged elk and bears for their nature shots.
While their intents were not malicious, it can nonetheless be disruptive to local wildlife. By habituating them to human activities, this can alter the animal’s natural behaviour, screwing up decade long research projects or luring animals into a false sense of security. Animals that are habituated to human activities are often less fearful and more bold around other humans or even predators, placing them at risk.
Concerns have also risen amongst ecologists that non-researchers may begin to obtain and deploy their own tags onto captured wildlife. Little has been done by the government to enact policies surrounding the use of tags for non-research purposes. But because many species of animals often travel in groups or packs, poachers can tag a single anima, but then gain the ability to track and harm an entire pack of untagged relatives.
GPS tags are almost indispensable for conservation biologists, but it has become clear that scientists need to do more than just collect data. In this digital age, the encryption of our personal information has become almost commonplace, and perhaps its time to extend that cyber security to the other members of the animal kingdom.