Cyber crime is so insidious, we can barely function anymore without taking a certain amount of risk. Artful cyber criminals can steal our online passwords, hack our bank accounts, masquerade as us on Facebook and Twitter and even steal our identities outright.
A new development, however, might just make you throw your hands in the air and mutter a choice expletive. You see, some tech-savvy poachers have figured out that they might not need to stomp around the jungle anymore, searching for days on end to find an endangered species to murder for its pelt or horns. Instead, they just hire a computer whiz.
Wildlife officials who keep tabs on the Bengal tigers in India’s protected Satpura-Bori Tiger Reserve reported recently that someone hacked their computer database. The data stolen was information from a tiger’s GPS collar.
Location data for one collared tiger, known as Panna-211, is suspected to have been compromised. Unfortunately, if would-be poachers are able to track this collar, it is likely to give them real time data on where Panna-211 is. All they’d have to do is go find him and kill him. Because no one has determined who hacked this information, the best Indian officials can do for the time being is keep a watchful eye on Panna-211 over the next several months.
Many programs and organizations use GPS collars to track animal locations and movements for study and conservation purposes. From endangered hirola antelopes in Kenya to Asiatic cheetahs in Iran, GPS collaring is invaluable in the fight to save species on the brink of extinction.
These collars allow scientists to track animal movements and travel routes so they can understand things like habitat needs, social behavior, predator avoidance techniques, hunting methodology, migration patterns and interaction with other local wild and domestic animals.
A good example is the work done in Kenya in 2008 tracking the Grevy’s zebra. The data collected from GPS collaring of these zebras provided researchers with critical information about how zebras juggle the need to find food with the constant danger of predatory lions.
“[W]e’ve been able to show the zebras change behavior markedly when they use the plains at night to minimize the risk of being preyed upon by lions,” Daniel Rubenstein, director of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University, told CNN.
Researchers also use GPS collars to track the Cross River gorilla near the border dividing Nigeria and Cameroon. Bushmeat hunters and other threats have forced these apes to move into mountainous areas that make tracking their movements challenging. GPS data helps researchers understand where the gorillas go and how they deal with human threats to their existence.
It’s hugely frustrating when technology advances that are meant to help animals are instead misappropriated by criminals and used to harm them instead.
It was only a matter of time before smart poachers realized that GPS collar data was ripe for the taking, if they could figure out how to steal it. In India, for the first time as far as we know, they’ve finally done just that. Other poachers will take note.
This hacking event should serve as a wake up call to all conservationists who use GPS collars – beef up your computer safety measures. Don’t let the animals suffer the consequences of lax security. The bad guys are coming for your data – and for the animals.
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