Danger of locations on iNaturalist

In my opinion, the biggest danger posed by use of iNaturalist is location theft resulting in poaching. I am sure we have all used iNaturalist maps to decide locations to visit in order to find certain species. I do it all the time, and many of my best finds were at locations I went to because of iNaturalist. I don’t collect (except for scorpions, which I take occasionally for primarily research purposes, never to sell), but many people are heavy collectors who take to sell. My worry is that these people could (and almost certainly do) use iNaturalist for this purpose.

Luckily, iNaturalist has a built-in protection against this - private and obscured localities. However, this system is very flawed. Private localities in observations basically lead to useless records, as it is as bad as having an unknown locality. And obscured comes with it’s own problems - Often times, rare species’ localities are not obscured, for example this observation of a rare viper. This is especially common in new users. Other times, obscuring a locality doesn’t help at all, such as in this observation of a legless lizard, where there is only one small spot of suitable habitat in the entire obscured radius.

Here is a good example of what can happen due to open localities: Although they are not threatened in Mexico, Twin spotted rattlesnakes (Crotalus pricei) have a very small range in the US, only occuring in southeast Arizona. They are known to be heavily poached, and alongside most of Arizona’s montane rattlesnakes, they are becoming rarer and rarer. Despite this, there are 20+ un-obscured observations of this snake (out of 37 total) in Cochise county, Arizona. Twin Spotted Rattlesnakes are already in threat because of climate change (as temperatures rise, they have to go farther up the mountains, but they are already at the top, and increased wildfires could destroy habitat, trapping them in unfavorable areas), and combined with poaching, they could easily go extinct in the US, as there are only around 1000-4000 of them left in the country. Many other species are similarly threatened, including the other two montane rattlesnakes in Arizona, some American colubrids and lizards, and hundreds of other species from all countries.

I am not sure what should be done about this (which is why I didn’t put it in feature-requests). Here are some possibilities:

  • Make the obscured rectangle bigger or another setting for a bigger rectangle
  • Add many more species to the list of those with automatically obscured localities
  • Make it possible for all or certain people (top 15 identifiers, for example) to change the status of an observation from open to obscured
  • Make all sensitive-species localities private, but still make them show up in county/state/country checklists

Add your opinions, I would love to hear them. This is an important discussion to be having, because as naturalists, we don’t want to add to the already massive poaching problem.

3 Likes

Have you read the existing conversations here on this topic? I don’t mean to sound dismissive but it’s been extensively discussed and some of those suggestions are active feature requests. If you notice an issue with a particular at risk taxon being set to open geoprivacy, flag it for curation to kick off the discussion.

4 Likes

Thanks for the reply. Can you link me to one of those discussions already on this topic? I couldn’t find any.

The search strings “poach” or “obscur” will pull up a range of relevant topics.

2 Likes

Should probably just auto-obscure all reptile/amphibian data regardless of conservation level as these are the most commonly poached groups.

3 Likes

@lotteryd thanks. I found a few relevant topics (though nothing to large).

@deanhester94 That would work, for the most part, but in some situations where conservation is not a major concern, exact locality is very important, for example Contia tenuis/longicaudae in the Bay Area

1 Like

I would love a feature to have different “levels” of obscurity on a species by species and country by country basis that can be adjusted by curators. There are so many benefits to this. For example, obscuring the location by 10km of a vulnerable beetle species is probably just find, because there is almost no danger to the species, especially in a country with strong laws protecting endangered species, such as the United States. However, for a species such as the Asian Elephant, obscuring the location by 10km isn’t really doing much, because it’s not that difficult to find an elephant in this area. The location of this species would need to obscured much more, especially in areas where it actively targeted, like Thailand. For some species or locations it may be necessary to have the location private.
I also think that every new species added to the database without a listing from the IUCN or another authoritative source on conservation status should be automatically obscured until changed by a curator if the species is not at risk.

3 Likes

That’s surprising, since there are a bunch.

Related feature requests:

And some related general discussions:

In every place except Canada, iNaturalist curators already have permission to change taxon geoprivacy. The guidelines are here: https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/curator+guide#geoprivacy

Since this subject has been covered so much in the linked topics (and more!) I request that folks:

  • please flag a taxon for curation if it looks like it should be obscured and isn’t currently. You can do this by going to the taxon page, then clicking Curation>Flag for curation. The “reason” section for the flag is rather small, but when the flag saves, there is a link to view it and add a longer comment. From there you would add your reasoning, such as that there is evidence it’s being poached in that area, and observations on a site like iNat would contribute to that (vs. some heavily poached taxa which are quite easy to find without need for a tool like iNat)
  • read through the linked topics and participate in those that are relevant
  • create a specific actionable feature request for preferred changes to how geoprivacy currently works
  • or open a new discussion topic with a bit narrower subject focus
5 Likes

Actually no. I go places and document what I see. I might return to places to get something I saw but failed to get a photo.

3 Likes

I sometimes use it in inverse - try to go places no one else has been.

6 Likes

What I sometimes do for observation of sensitive species is not post the observation until one or two months have passed since the observation was made. I will also change the time stamp in the EXIF data to a day on which no other observations were made.

3 Likes

While I think obscuring specific locations of rare species is very appropriate and should be encouraged, I also think that observations posted with NO location are essentially useless, except as a vanity project for the poster. And if they are looking for an identification or confirmation of an ID from a difficult group of organisms, any such attempt becomes little more than speculation, in my opinion.

2 Likes

A determined person will likely discover the site of a rare species. For example, at one site I worked we had a rare plant. I visited herbaria trying to find how often it had been collected. I found nine specimens, but most were older with no indication of frequency. It seemed obvious that botanists had seen the specimens and gone out to collect at the same site. The one specimen that had numbers said the observer found 13 plants. You can do the math on impact. Fortunately, when I visited the site I found about 25-30 plants in the collection area and a couple hundred more by risking my life climbing the bluff where I found a large colony of 200-300 in an area where I had to hold small trees to keep from falling 50-100 feet. My point? Obscuring the site would have been useless to keep botanists from collecting a voucher for their herbarium. I’ve obscured a few sites of rare species, but also reported them to the state heritage program without that. For me, sites become useless without specific locations. Another example? A plant known from 5-6 sites in Arkansas, one of which is based on a specimen collected “east of Mountain Home.” I’ve searched and searched for the site, finding it a couple miles west of the town, but the site could be under Lake Norfork. Who knows? I find roadside herbiciding a much more important issue for rare plants, or one site the state turned into a yard for dumping gravel, dirt, and other road products!

2 Likes

the bottom line is we have anecdotal evidence of people using sites like iNat to go poach things, but at least with plants, we don’t really have any evidence that iNat locations increase overall poaching. Would poachers have just found the plants anyway? Would they hit known populations harder and devastated them instead of dispersing? Are rare plants really that hard to find? Granted it’s my profession, but I find rare plants all the time, and usually based on habitat and such they are pretty easy to zero in on as you say. Also we are assuming that the interested public are worse stewards than the nation-state authorities which depending on the authorities on global regional and local levels isn’t always true. I concede that it’s better safe than sorry where there’s a conceivable risk but i also think a general fear of technology or of democratization of knowledge fuels a lot of this concern by authorities, and there isn’t much evidence to back it up in most cases (some herps being an exception, and rhinos or whatever). And there’s no way to quantify reduced poaching thanks to iNat data. Say, poachers have been constantly hitting a ginseng patch in the mountains, but now that the local community knows it is there, more eyes on the ground and visibility discourages poachers from sneaking in or the locals deny access or set up a permit system. Etc.

In short the danger of locations on iNat is always addressed but the danger of not having the interested public aware of biodiversity is often missed.

Consider this: Pre-inat, under the current system of hiding information, we have witnessed a mass extinction similar in impact to a large comet hitting the planet. Granted we don’t want to make it worse, but it really doesn’t make sense to use the late-20th century mass extinction event as a baseline for what is good conservation practice. And, if a comet is gonna hit anyway, i’d rather know what was there before it hit so people could rebuild later.

4 Likes

Got me thinking: this may also be a way for authorities to find places where poachers are more likely to go. If there are authorities for environmental crimes?

1 Like

Have you considered the danger of not knowing location? If people don’t know something exists in their neighborhood, how can they care? How can they mourn its loss.

I think iNat can get more people out and knowing the natural world around them. Then when it’s threatened, they’ll care and take action.

7 Likes