Poachers Are Using Scientific Papers to Guide Them to Their Next Victims

For scientists who discover new species, the prospect of their science being used to gather and sell the species they described is a strange one

Chelodina mccordi
Chelodina mccordi, hunted to near extinction for the pet trade. Image: Wikimedia

When scientists publish a paper on a particular species, they're generally not imagining that they're helping out poachers. But that's exactly what's happening for some scientists. According to Laurel Neme at Mongabay, scientists discovering a new species have been inadvertently contributing to wildlife trading. Take the story of Bryan Stuart, who has discovered 27 different species of newts:

Shortly after Stuart described the previously unknown species Laotriton (Paramesotriton) laoensis in a scientific paper published in 2002, commercial dealers began collecting this Lao newt for sale into the pet trade. In essence, the dealers used Stuart's geographic description in the paper as a “roadmap” to find the rare newt.

Collectors came from all over to the two tiny streams where Stuart found the newt and began illegally collecting the critters and selling them for over $250 a pop. And Neme says that Stuart's story isn't even that uncommon:

This situation is not unique. It's also happened with a turtle (Chelodina mccordi) from the small Indonesian island of Roti, which was so heavily hunted that today it is nearly extinct in the wild. Similarly, a rare gecko (Goniurosaurus luii) from southeastern China was extirpated from its locality as prices in importing countries soared to highs of $1,500 to $2,000 each.

What can researchers do to keep their work from endangering the species they've just discovered? Stuart suggests that they start working with local governments to figure out how to keep poachers away from these new species. And sometimes, Stuart says, it might actually be prudent to keep some information out of the public domain:

In some cases, I know that some other museum curators, such as myself, while we are motivated by trying to make all the information from the collections that we are responsible for as freely available to the public as we can, we do try to keep in mind stories like the one I've just reported, where there are those few bad apples out there, people who are looking to obtain those data not for scientific activities but rather for personal profit.

For scientists who discover new species, the prospect of their science being used to gather and sell the species they so painstakingly described is a strange one. But species hunters have to start taking note of the other kind of hunters out there.

More from Smithsonian.com:

How Poaching Led to Serial Killer Elephants
Poaching the Venus Flytrap

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