A digital threat to wildlife

  • Letters
  • Monday, 20 Feb 2017

Sabrea remains was killed around Nov 20 and was discovered on Saturday by environmental conservationist.

ELEPHANTS are no match for poachers. The macabre butchering of two Borneo pygmy elephants shows that poachers abound in almost every corner of the country waiting to strike when least expected.

In the past, pygmy elephants were the victims of poisoning, reportedly by oil palm plantation workers to deter elephants from eating the fruit of the palm trees. Last September, a group of elephants were stuck in a mud pool in Rinukut for a week leaving seven dead.

How many more disastrous outcomes will befall the elephants before the state government wakes up to the fact that concerted efforts and serious protection from all relevant agencies and political willpower is needed, if wildlife is to survive in Sabah? Piecing together a conservation area four times the size of Penang island will not help if Class 1 totally protected forest reserve can be degazetted again or fragmented by a bridge in the middle of the sanctuary.

In the case of the macabre slaughter of the horribly mutilated elephants, what brought Sabre to his end was the wide publicity given to its unusual slanting down sabre tusk. (Picture shows the remains of Sabre found on Dec 31)

The Sabah Environment Ministry and the relevant authorities should have known better than to go all out publicising their discovery. With images of the mini elephant going viral on social media and electronic print, these will naturally incite the poachers’ desire to get at the valuable tusks.

Not forgetting that the Internet is now a medium of choice for wildlife traders and poachers. Images posted on sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can all betray details of a species’ location.

Poachers are scouring popular social media sites looking for any leads on where to find endangered species. Many are unaware that poachers are able to use the photographs of incredibly rare lions, tigers and elephants to find and kill the species by downloading digital data attached to the images which will reveal the exact locations of animals.

Many modern cameras and smartphones automatically record the exact time and location where an image is taken and this data is often transferred when a photograph is uploaded on to social media.

In this age of extinctions, governments love to trumpet any rare or unique findings of species, revealing biological and geographical data. The choice for the ‘publicize and protect’ strategy must be based on secrecy, particularly in the exact whereabouts of species location, while making effective conservation solutions all the more urgent.

Publicity could either generate financial and political support to prevent the species from becoming extinct or it may back-fire when publicity creates threats that were previously absent.

The unique finding requires immediate major conservation intervention, which given the track record of conservation in Sabah is unlikely to be effective.

Whether or not a species is listed as endangered or threatened then depends on a number of factors, including the urgency and whether adequate protection exist through other means.

The UK Guardian reported that academic journals have begun withholding the geographical locations of newly discovered species after being warned that the data is helping poachers and smugglers drive lizards, frogs and snakes into near extinction with their collection.

Endangered animals and plants are often the target of wildlife crime because of their rarity. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has guidelines prohibiting the publication of location data for endangered species of high economic value.

It is about time we safeguard our wildlife from the risk of exposure to loss, harm, death, or injury through widespread publicity.


President, Sahabat Alam Malaysia

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