Poachers using science papers to target newly discovered species

Journals begin withholding locations after warnings the data is helping smugglers drive lizards, snakes and frogs to ‘near-extinction’

Academic journals have begun withholding the geographical locations of newly discovered species after poachers used the information in peer-reviewed papers to collect previously unknown lizards, frogs and snakes from the wild, the Guardian has learned.

In an age of extinctions, scientists usually love to trumpet the discovery of new species, revealing biological and geographical data that sheds new light on the mysteries of evolution.

But earlier this year, an announcement in the Zootaxa academic journal that two new species of large gecko had been found in southern China contained a strange omission: the species’ whereabouts.

“Due to the popularity of this genus as novelty pets, and recurring cases of scientific descriptions driving herpetofauna to near-extinction by commercial collectors, we do not disclose the collecting localities of these restricted-range species in this publication,” the paper said.

The relevant data was instead lodged with government agencies, and would be available to fellow scientists on request, the study made clear.

“The publishing of data identifying geographic locations poses a threat to the survival of some newly discovered species,” said Mark Auliya, a biologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and co-chair International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)’s monitor lizard specialist group.

“Locality information is used and misused by traders. Printing the location of animals that are rare, protected, endangered, or endemic to specific islands or habitats can easily create a market demand, especially if they are charismatic, colourful or unique in their morphology.”

The International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature does not oblige scientists to provide GPS coordinates for newly discovered species, but many do as an act of empirical completion.

Even when species locations are not precisely mapped, black market traders can often track them down, using local contacts and big cash offers that turn the heads of poor farmers.

Just four months after Zootaxa published discovery information about a new leaf-tailed gecko in Madagascar last summer, the animal began appearing in Europe.

Populations of the critically endangered Roti Island snake-necked turtle were “severely depleted” by wildlife smugglers, after a newly distinct species was identified in Indonesia by a peer-reviewed paper in 1994, Auliya said.

A Dendrobates galactonotus frog
A Dendrobates galactonotus frog, a species at risk of extinction. Experts are calling for a multimillion pound rescue mission to save frogs and other amphibians from extinction. Photograph: Ron D Holt/PA./PA

In 2013, Marinus Hoogmoed and his wife announced the discovery of a new light blue morph of poison dart frog (Dendrobates galactonotus) – and its location in Amazonian Brazil – in the Phyllomedusa journal.

Three months later, a terrarium keeper in Germany sent him photos of the new morph, which he said he had been offered on the German trade circuit, at prices of between €350-700.

Hoogmoed, a retired herpetologist and former curator of reptiles and amphibians at Leiden’s natural history museum, complained to the authorities in Brazil, which prohibits the export of all wildlife. But the case was not pursued.

“The problem is that inspection and law enforcement in Brazil for wildlife is, at the least, weak,” he told the Guardian. “As this trade is relatively small and does not involve high-profile animals or large amounts of money, there is not much interest to make a juridical case.”

Environmental crimes of this type were “not considered a priority” in Brazil, he added.

Ariadne Angulo, the co-chair of the IUCN’s amphibian specialist group said that the scientific community was increasingly discussing withholding location data in internal forums and dialogues.

“It’s an ethical conundrum,” she said. “Many scientists are caught in the dilemma that: here we are with a species no one knows - its not even considered a species - they describe it, provide locality information, it makes it into the primary data and a few months later that species is found on the market.”

The IUCN has guidelines prohibiting the publication of location data for endangered species of high economic value that are threatened by the pet trade, but many journals do not yet.

Colour changing tree monitors or garden lizards
Colour changing tree monitors or garden lizards (Calotes versicolor) and Bronze skinks (Lygosoma indicum) hung in a street market to be sold as pets in Hainan province, China. Photograph: Xiao Shibai/Alamy

The problem – which also affects snakes, molluscs, butterflies and birds - is most acutely felt in the amphibian and reptile fields. Only 8% of the world’s 10,200 reptile species are regulated by the International Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), leaving the rest to the vagaries of the market.

The IUCN has assessed less than half of the world’s reptiles, but estimates that at least 1,390 are threatened by “biological resource use”. Around 350 of these have been targeted by international collectors, mostly non-Cites listed species.

Ten EU countries have reported the import of more than 20 million live reptiles in the last decade, according to Eurostat figures.


Arthur Neslen in Brussels

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Culture shock: how loss of animals’ shared knowledge threatens their survival
From whales to monkeys, elephants and even fruit flies, researchers say they are starting to understand animal culture just ‘as it disappears before our eyes’

Zoe Kean

13, Aug, 2021 @6:01 AM

Article image
New monkey species identified in Democratic Republic of Congo
Lesula found in remote forests is only the second new monkey species to be discovered in Africa in 28 years

Adam Vaughan

13, Sep, 2012 @9:50 AM

Article image
Poachers wiping out Zimbabwe's rhinos as demand surges

Chairman of conservation force says around 120 animals killed since March to feed black market

David Smith in Harare

09, Jun, 2009 @6:18 PM

Article image
Elephant deaths rise in Tanzania after shoot-to-kill poachers policy is dropped
Sixty animals 'butchered' in two months since crackdown was suspended after inquiry uncovered murder, rape and extortion

David Smith, Africa correspondent

31, Dec, 2013 @4:33 PM

Forest elephants threatened by poachers

Africa's forest elephants are being severely threatened by ivory poaching, according to a new survey of central African rainforest.

James Randerson

03, Apr, 2007 @9:35 AM

Article image
Huge chimpanzee population thriving in remote Congo forest

Scientists believe the group is one of the last chimp 'mega-cultures', sharing a unique set of customs and behaviour

Damian Carrington

07, Feb, 2014 @11:53 AM

Article image
Europe to crack down on wildlife smugglers to protect rare lizard species
EU proposal seeks to close a legal loophole allowing the sale of endangered lizards in Europe after a Guardian article revealed the scale of the problem

Arthur Neslen

05, May, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
Earth has lost half of its wildlife in the past 40 years, says WWF
Species across land, rivers and seas decimated as humans kill for food in unsustainable numbers and destroy habitats

Damian Carrington

30, Sep, 2014 @4:53 PM

Article image
New species discovered behind a pub – then saved from extinction
In 2007, conservationists discovered a new species inhabiting a beach just behind a pub in Granity, New Zealand. But could they save it before erosion and rising waters wiped it off the face of the planet?

Jeremy Hance

01, Jun, 2017 @1:47 PM

Article image
Bees translate dances of foreign species

Honeybees can communicate with others from far-off continents by learning to interpret their moves

Ian Sample, science correspondent

03, Jun, 2008 @11:01 PM