Radio-collaring wildlife, such as this cheetah, provides insights into animal lives, but can that technology also threaten the protection of those same species? ©Bernard DUPONT, flickr

As the field of electronic wildlife-tracking has grown, so has our knowledge about the lives of animals. Through GPS collaring and trail cams, we’ve learned that zebras undertake the longest terrestrial migration in the world, that snow leopards are managing to hang on in Afghanistan and that Bhutan’s tigers have moved higher up the mountainsides in order to survive.

While such electronic tracking has helped save critical habitats and animals themselves from threats, such as poachers, I have to admit I wonder about the ethics of tracking animals by outfitting them with our devices and spying on them. While the information we gain is certainly useful and often the only thing that stands between a natural area and development, what cost are we extracting from the wildlife we so closely and ubiquitously follow?

In other words, is it time to start thinking about animal privacy rights?

In the Gran Paradiso National Park in Italy, it’s common to see animals wearing radio (or GPS) collars, such as this one on a chamois. ©Fulvio Spada, flickr

Tracking takes a troublesome turn

A new study published in the science journal Conservation Biology on January 12, 2017, titled “Troubling Issues at the Frontier of Animal Tracking for Conservation and Management,” posits that there are some serious negative effects of tracking; effects that sometimes outweigh the benefits.

Lead author, Dr. Steven Cooke of Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and his colleagues describe the escalating dangers that wildlife cameras, recorders and tracking devices now commonly deployed across the world can cause. In the abstract of the study, the authors state, “As use of electronic tagging in research and public awareness of this technology has increased, a number of troubling and unanticipated issues have emerged.”

And those issues are indeed distressing. From Australia to India and from Canada’s Banff National Park to the United States’ Yellowstone National Park, hunters and poachers are downloading findings from conservation studies or hacking into science lab computers to make stalking prey easier. Some even go to court to get their hands on tracking facts: in Minnesota, for example, anglers petitioned a court for access to movement data from transmitters on northern pike. They argued that the information should be made publicly available because it had been publicly funded. The court did not rule in the plaintiffs’ favor, but the incident does demonstrate how some regard wildlife research as public property that should be made available to anyone for any purpose.

In order to monitor their success, most of the reestablished bighorn sheep in Arches National Park have been radio-collared. ©NPS/Neal Herbert

In Australia, researchers tagged great white sharks in order to study their ecology and to be able to warn people when they were close to beaches. However, the data ended up being used in a shark cull by wildlife authorities. In India, hackers got into a computer system and collected statistics from GPS collars on Bengal tigers in the Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve. The information gave poachers real-time locations of the animals within the protected area, eliminating the time-consuming and dangerous work of physically tracking them down.

The kind of radio receivers researchers use for tracking collared animals can be purchased by almost anyone for about $300. If you have a general idea of the bandwidth of the transmitter, says Dr. Cooke, you can just stand in position and turn the dial. Once you hear the beep-beep-beep of a collar, you can point the receiver at that bear, cougar, wolf or whatever happens to be tagged and pursue it. In Canada’s Banff National Park, a public ban on VHF radio receivers was implemented after photographers used telemetry to track tagged animals. It’s speculated that groups that want to drive wolves out of Yellowstone National Park have found ways to unravel the codes that will let them follow radio-collared canids there.

Dr. Steven Cooke, a biologist and fish scientist, is even worried about the data he collected from electronic transmitters showing where muskies live in eastern Ontario’s Rideau River. He doesn’t want to supply a precise map of fishing hot spots.

In Tanzania, Africa, this lioness lives and hunts while wearing a radio collar. ©Max Handelsman, flickr

Too, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where there are incentives for malicious attempts to derail telemetry studies or distort study findings. People could employ hackers to interfere with research, especially when that research could have significant economic or political consequences, such as on fishing regulations or in resource extraction.

Beyond in Bhutan and away in Afghanistan

At times, I have been called a heretic for suggesting that plants are sentient, that personhood for animals might be appropriate for the future or that E. O. Wilson’s Half Earth theory should be seriously considered.

Now, I’m going to ask you something else that might seem way out-there: Did Bhutan’s tigers move higher up the mountain, in part, to get away from us? Did Afghanistan’s snow leopards go into hiding to stay away from our constant, unblinking electronic eyes?

Do animals have a right to privacy?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,