Who cannot resist sharing a photograph of an endangered animal encountered in the wild, especially if you see a rhino with his horn intact? The urge is there, no matter how innocently, and it is human nature to show the world what you’ve just experienced.
What we don’t realise is that we contribute to the potential poaching of that exact animal – unintentionally. How, you may ask? It’s simple – by sharing a photo on social media, we also share so much else, like the exact location of the animal. Images taken with electronic devices also capture the geo-data of the location and save it with the file information. Most people aren’t even aware of it, but criminals, like poachers, quickly figure out ways to get the information they want.
On a silver plate
“Those involved in poaching often use social media platforms to see where there have been sightings of endangered species. This places the species under immediate threat, as their location and often a timestamp is provided to those involved in illegal activities to track the animal. Essentially, by giving out this information, you hand the target to those who illegally kill wildlife for profit,” explains Neil Greenwood, Head of Programmes and Operations, International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) Southern Africa.
He adds that often these photos or taglines reference where the sighting took place. “By monitoring the numerous social media sites (often without proper privacy settings being in place), they are able to home in on locations more effectively. Given many of these species don’t travel vast distances or have set home ranges, all the poachers need to do is access those locations and find the animals,” says Neil.
As there are various conservation challenges that wildlife protectors have to face on a daily basis, sharing information on social media platforms adds to their already long list. “There are numerous challenges. Species that are targeted, like rhino and elephants, are often found in vast protected areas. These areas need to be patrolled by limited counter-poaching units, which make it difficult to be everywhere at once. When locations of animals are disclosed in photos or geo-tags, it gives the poachers a head start to find the animals and places the counter-poaching units at a disadvantage,” says Neil.
On the other side of the coin, social media has its place in conservation, even if it is to make people aware of the endangered wildlife issues. “As we are dependent on funding in order to take care of the animals at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC), we do make use of social media. We are working together with one of the best anti-poaching units known in the area, and spent an enormous amount of money on security upgrades. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to enter the HESC premises on a poaching mission,” explains Karen Swiegers, General Manager of the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre.
“That said, we do agree on the risk involved when the exact location of an animal is shared and the ‘wrong’ person gets hold of that knowledge. We are not a game reserve, and therefore cannot really say that this is how it should be done or not, but it does make sense that the more information a poacher can get, the easier it makes it for the poachers to get to the animals,” says Karen.
In some instances, it is beneficial if people do spot endangered animals so that authorities can keep track of specific animals. “My personal opinion would be for reserves to give each and every guest or person visiting the reserve a very informative briefing on the risks of sharing information. Should they have sightings of endangered animals, it would be good to share it with the staff or management of the reserve, who in turn could give the information to the various institutions or organisations that do observe, monitor or study these animals. Most of the reserves do work closely with organisations and institutions, and hopefully most people on game farms are passionate about conserving the animals. Therefore, the extra administration would not be too much of an effort,” advises Karen.
Neil adds: “Apart from notifying park authorities if there is a request to do so, keep the information to yourself and enjoy the privileged opportunity of seeing a rare and/or endangered species.”
If you really have to share pictures of endangered animals, ensure that the geo-tagging and locations on your electronic device is deactivated.