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.
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.
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.