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Cyber poaching threatens endangered wildlife

Trade in illegal wildlife amounts to as much as $10 billion every year, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Increasingly, these illicit activities are moving online, which allows poachers and traders to make transactions faster, execute their activities anonymously, and enables them to expand their customer base to include people around the world. Investigations into wildlife-related crimes reveal that cellphones and e-mail have become vital tools for poachers. Also, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora has revealed that more and more cyber poachers are relying on the Internet to co-ordinate their activities.

According to a recent report by National Geographic, hackers are now using their skills to access confidential information on the location of endangered species. The report follows a concerning incident in India, where the e-mail account of a representative from the Panna Tiger Reserve was hacked.

The individual's inbox contained information regarding the geographic location of an endangered Bengal tiger, which was fitted with a GPS collar in February 2013 to help the team keep track of the animal's whereabouts.

Luckily, the attempted hack was prevented by the e-mail server; had the cyber criminals accessed the information, they would require specialised software to decode the encrypted geographical data.

While Krishnamurthy Ramesh, head of the monitoring programme at Panna Tiger Reserve, notes that the hackers would have had trouble making sense of the data, the incident has led him and his team to worry about what could happen if this kind of information about endangered species fell into the wrong hands.

While GPS tracking technology has been used successfully in the past to keep tabs on threatened species, this technology could help poachers hunt endangered species.

According to data from wildlife-trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, online auction Web sites are being used to facilitate the illegal trade in endangered wildlife and to pedal wildlife by-products like ivory jewellery, rhino horn powder and tiger paws.

The incident in India has pushed Ramesh and his team to upscale the security in the reserve – deploying wildlife surveillance drones and setting up wireless sensors to monitor intruders.


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