Being able to pinpoint a tiger’s exact location has saved poachers days of bushwhacking through dense jungles. ©Toby Sinclair

There’s no doubt that tracking devices, such as GPS collars, have helped researchers monitor and conserve wildlife. While the necessity of capturing and handling wild animals—and the high costs involved—in order to attach these mechanisms has been controversial for some time, now a band-new, sinister use of these tools is being discovered.

Wildlife officials responsible for monitoring Bengal tigers in the Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve in the Satpura Hills of central India say that a computer system was recently hacked to collect data from a tiger’s GPS collar. This cybercrime, being called the first of its kind, would allow poachers real-time data on where the animal is within a reserve, eliminating the dangerous work of physically tracking it down.

As many populations of endangered animals continue to decline due to rampant poaching, conservationists are responding by increasingly turning to high-tech tools to save these threatened species. In the wrong hands, however, the information gained from these instruments could be instructing criminals with the opposite intentions.

Are technological advances in tracking techniques helping poachers more than they are assisting wildlife protectors?

Per World Wildlife Fund, there are less than 2,500 tigers left in the wild.

A cyberpoach averted . . .

Before the use of electronic tracking devices on animals, most illegal hunters faced long days of bushwhacking through dark and tangled jungles before even hoping to spot elusive creatures, such as Bengal tigers. Now, however, a dangerous and more deadly breed of cybersavvy poachers can use conservation tools to help target their illicit prey.

In February 2013, researchers at the 210-square-mile Panna Tiger Reserve in India attached a GPS satellite collar on a two-and-a-half-year-old, male Bengal tiger identified as Panna-211. The tracking collar, which cost nearly $5,000, has satellite- and ground-tracking capabilities within an accuracy of 8.2 feet. It was configured to provide GPS data every hour for the first three months and every four hours for the next five months. In July 2013, the battery expired; and the satellite feedback in the collar stopped working.

The Times of India reported that it was at about this time that the head of the monitoring program, Dr. Krishnamurthy Ramesh, received a notification that someone more than 620 miles away had attempted to access his e-mail account where the GPS tracking data was sent. It is thought that the server prevented access; but if the cyberpoachers did obtain the encrypted GPS data, Ramesh states that it can only be decoded with specialized data-converter software and specific radio-collar product information. As a precaution, however, Panna-211 was moved from the Panna Tiger Reserve to the Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve. The incident has caused Panna officials to ramp up the reserve’s security; in January 2014, conservationists will deploy surveillance drones and set up wireless sensors to detect human intrusions.

. . . but for how long?

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the wildlife-trafficking industry is worth $7.8 to $10 billion per year. It’s booming, especially since traffickers have shifted to online sales. For example, “code words” are now being used to describe illegal items sold on eBay.

Unfortunately, tigers are a valuable black market commodity.

In the case of Bengal tigers, there are fewer than 2,500 left in the wild. Unfortunately, they fetch a high price on the black market, with individual parts going for up to $2,000 and whole tigers priced at $50,000. Luckily, this time at the Panna Tiger Reserve, it is believed that encryption and e-mail security thwarted poachers, but that doesn’t mean more talented criminals couldn’t break through in the future.

Although wildlife-tracking methods are getting more sophisticated and many of them now require less stressful handling of the animals, are there any electronic techniques that are foolproof against hacking? For security reasons, should the monitoring of endangered species be kept low-tech?

As for Panna-211, a team of wildlife officials at the Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve stay within 1,600 feet of the tiger at all times to deter poachers—a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem.

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

Candy