article / 20 August 2018

How to share data on species to help conserve them… whilst avoiding them being exploited by poachers

In this case study, conservation ecologist Ayesha Tulloch takes us behind the scenes of her recent paper, which came out in Nature Ecology & Evolution earlier this month. In this paper, Ayesha and her team present a decision tree they developed for assessing the conservation risks and rewards of making biodiversity data open to the public.

Most field ecologists spend a lot of time collecting valuable data on the locations of animals and plants, and other information critical for understanding a species’ ecology such as where nests or breeding areas or essential food resources are located.

Why do we need good data on where species live?

Good data on populations of plants and animals live and reproduce, and what food or other resources they need to survive, also help conservation managers know where action is needed. Without these data, we can’t make decisions about which places are more important than others to invest in conservation actions, and which species are more at risk of extinction than others. It’s well acknowledged that we have very poor information on most of biodiversity- we have spent much of the last few hundred years focusing on large, charismatic animals, so thousands of species are what we term “data deficient”. We need more information on where populations of plants and animals are, and what might be threatening them, to make sure we are putting protected areas in the right places and doing management such as invasive species control in the places that will have the best outcomes for biodiversity.

One good example of the usefulness of sharing data on threatened species is the tracking of migratory shorebirds along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway – surveys shared by dedicated birdwatchers as well as satellite tracking of birds has allowed us to learn about critical feeding and breeding areas along their migration routes. This information is vital for developing recovery plans and policy to try to mitigate threats. The main threats to these birds are habitat loss and climate change (especially coastal reclamation of their critical habitat in the China Sea). the data published on where these birds fly and rest during migration helped us understand these threats and the places they need to survive their long migrations- some of them fly over 1000 km, so you can imagine that having suitable places to rest and feed is so important. These places weren’t well understood until scientists and bird watchers had published data on these birds. Species like these shorebirds have received greater international attention and environmental protection, such as being listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species because published data was available to show that they were in trouble.


Shorebirds. Photo: Ingrid Taylar, Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0

Another good example of how better information on a species can help conservation is the Critically Endangered West Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae). This fish was thought to be extinct for 60 million years when it was discovered and tagged off the South African coast in 2000. The greatest threat to this fish is fisheries bycatch. The publicity generated by making the location data available led to new marine protected areas, fisheries management measures that restrict fishing in the locations where the fish lives and a US$6 million multinational research program that is also benefiting many other southern African species.


The Critically Endangered west Indian Ocean coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae). Photo: Alberto Fernandez Fernandez, Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

So why aren’t all data on the locations of species shared all the time?

Alongside the concern to expand our knowledge are increasing concerns that it is dangerous to publish the locations of species, especially those at risk of exploitation. Poaching and illegal collection are big issues – we don’t want to publish information about species that could increase the risk of them being killed or collected for the wildlife trade. We all know about elephant and rhino poaching, but there are many other examples such as exotic reptiles and birds that are poached due to their popularity in the pet trade and the prices – for example, a poacher can charge more than $30,000 for an Australian black-cockatoo on the black market and $400,000 for a gorilla.

So scientists collecting data on where populations of plants and animals live or breed or feed have a problem – they must balance difficult and uncertain trade-offs about risks and benefits to species when deciding whether to share information about species’ occurrence publicly or privately.

Our solution: A balanced decision tree for deciding how to publish biodiversity data

The solution we propose is a decision-tree protocol for scientists that allows for systematic assessment of the risks and benefits of publishing biodiversity data. It aims to enhance conservation efforts, promote community engagement and reduce survey duplication. In particular, it aims to improve conservation outcomes by enabling scientists to understand the benefits of sharing data and the costs of not sharing data, rather than focusing solely on the risks. Being clear about the pros and cons of making data public will ensure that species are not put in more danger from new data being out in the public domain.

A decision tree to guide decisions about whether to publish primary biodiversity data

A decision tree to guide decisions about whether to publish primary biodiversity data. Source: Tulloch, A. et al (2018) A decision tree for assessing the risks and benefits of publishing biodiversity data, Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559- 018-0608-1​

Our decision tree shows that although there are a number of threats to species that could be exacerbated by sharing data on where they live, there are many many other species not threatened by these kinds of threats. These species might be impacted by human disturbance of their habitat, but their main reasons for decline might be due to human-driven processes like logging, agricultural clearing of habitat, or climate change. Examples of such species are the recently discovered Vangunu Giant Rat and the Endangered Night Parrot. For these species, it is important to make data public and share with the conservation organisations and public groups wanting to help biodiversity by creating reserves, restoring habitat, and other management actions. Here is a Nature podcast where I step through an example of when sharing location data on the recently discovered Vangunu Giant Rat could help prevent logging of its habitat through informing where to place reserves in the Solomon Islands.

“Good data is essential for conservation. It also brings power. Which then brings responsibility”James Watson, UQ

As my colleague and co-author James Watson (GreenFireScience, UQ) wrote when we released this paper: “Good data is essential for conservation. It also brings power. Which then brings responsibility”. We hope that out decision tree will help make these responsibilities and decisions easier by guiding those collecting species information through the risks and benefits of sharing data. This will enable us to make better choices about how and when to publish biodiversity data, which will help build biodiversity knowledge and manage the global extinction crisis.

The amazing team of authors on this paper are from the University of Queensland, Wildlife Conservation Society, the University of Sydney, Birdlife Australia, the University of Kansas, CSIRO, Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, and the Australian Museum.

If you want to read more about this work you can check out the whole paper here.

Tulloch, A.I.T., Auerbach, N., Avery-Gomm, S., Bayraktarov, E., Butt, N., Dickman, C.R., Ehmke, G., Fisher, D.O., Grantham, H., Holden, M.H., Lavery, T.H., Leseberg, N.P., Nicholls, M., O’Connor, J., Roberson, L., Smyth, A.K., Stone, Z., Tulloch, V., Turak, E., Wardle, G.M., Watson, J.E.M., 2018. A decision tree for assessing the risks and benefits of publishing biodiversity data. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, 1209-1217. doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0608-1

Or, for a great summary of the research, check out the Nature editorial.

About the Author

Ayesha Tulloch is an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Fellow in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences (SOLES) at Sydney University with a specialisation in using ecological knowledge to inform conservation decision-making processes. She is interested in finding solutions to conservation and wildlife management problems related to ecological monitoring, dynamic processes such as fire and invasive species, ecosystem restoration and collapse, conservation conflicts, spatial conservation planning and triage. She works with non-government conservation organisations, private industries and government agencies concerned with managing our environment in Australia, Africa, New Zealand, U.S.A. and the U.K., to develop solutions for learning about the influence of threatening processes and associated effectiveness of species and ecosystem management, accounting for societal pressures, and prioritising investment in conservation actions to maximise our chance of living sustainably with our environment.

This article first appeared on Ayesha Tulloch's blog, and was republished here with permission. 

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