Discourage and report illegal practices


I am a naturalist but also an activist for the respect of environmental law.
The French law on protected species prohibits, among other things, capture and intentional disturbance.
I have found that for some of these protected species, especially species that are difficult to photograph in natura, one can find many photos on inaturalist that show illegal practices, like protected species held in hand, locked in boxes or in nets.

For example the species Coenagrion mercuriale is protected species in France (capture, disturbance forbidden without special permission), but you can find many pictures of observers handling it on French territory in the database.

Beyond the illegal aspect and the penal risk for these people (relatively low), there is a question of ethics and of exemplarity of the naturalist world in the public trivialisation of illegal practices “in the name of citizen science”. Difficult to convince non-naturalists to respect the law if naturalists do not set an example…
So for the iNaturalist community it’s a matter of reputation regarding respect for national laws.
I have occasionally contacted some of these people to point out that their photographs show an illegal practice, but there are far too many of such cases. I think that the problem should be treated more globally, on the one hand by reminding users of the basic ethical rules (not to publish photos taken in an illegal context with regard to local legislation on the protection of species), and on the other hand, to foresee an additional feature which could be to allow users to appreciate the respect the local regulations in force, with a warning system ?
I don’t know if this request should be included in the “annotations” (it could be similar) as it should have operational implications (potential depublication of the photograph or warning).
Best regards

This comes up from time to time and my personal take is it’s a really difficult thing to try to do via inaturalist beyond educating users. I think it needs to be a broader effort. That being said, maybe more info in the rare species tag could be one way to go. Where it says “Nationally Threatened!” or whatever it could also say “Note: illegal to handle or harass!”. Maybe a big red flag at the top of the page would make people reconsider.

People are constantly sharing their outright illegal behavior online often with little though of the consequences, though in truth there often aren’t any.


But do they know species when they catch it? Do they know it’s protected and it’s forbidden to handle it?


I would try to educate users that you see have observations displaying illegal behavior like handling certain animals. I’m sure the majority do not know they are violating any law or doing harm. But for users who post frequently, it would be worth pointing out their mistake so they are less likely do it again.

And as @melodi_96 the observer probably wouldn’t know it is a protected species until they identify it. But they might recognize it next time if you make them aware.


Agreed, most people will not be aware that they are doing this. There are some obvious exceptions (please don’t try to ride sea turtles, etc), but I think scaring people with legal consequences isn’t likely to have a strong beneficial impact. Gentle education will probably get the best response.

Many people are even well meaning while doing “stupid” things…can’t tell you how many people chase seals back into the ocean when seals are hauled out to bask or injured and taking a rest. Harassing a marine mammal is a violation of the MMPA in the US, but these people are trying to help a seal they think is confused (not intentionally breaking the law). Most folks are oblivious of wildlife laws, so educating will help a lot! If they know a better way to help the seal (ie, leave it alone!), they will do so.

It’s not an easy solution, but I think iNat can be viewed as a net positive here. I would guess that a lot of these interactions would have happened even without iNat - having them posted on iNat then provides a chance to educate and improve behavior in the future that wouldn’t have existed without it.


There is also the issue that recording the presence of rare species is especially important! Let’s not delete the observations, now that they exist. Educating observers not to do it again is the better way to go, though as an educator I know it’s frustratingly slow.

Also, as @melodi_96 points out, with some species we don’t know what species we’re dealing with until we have it in the hand.


I agree with your assessment. However, as @melodi_96 has said, we often do not know the ID of the organism when we photograph. I’m in Canada, North America, and the damselfly you highlighted would just look, to my uneducated eye, like one of the blue ones I see around here.
I also believe that most people do not know their laws regarding protected species, or the ones not to be disturbed. I know a fellow who wanted to set up a light trap for moths in a National Park (Canada), and met all the requirements to do so. I had wanted to go to that area, but did not even realize it was a Federal park.
Perhaps we should all learn the laws of our nation in this respect. Casual users are unlikely to do so. Maybe iNat should post a prominent headline to become aware of local laws before taking images on the Introduction page. I’m not sure it would make much of a difference, though. In Canada, and every province, there are different rules that one would have to find and sort through.
In defense of iNat, I’m not sure what else we could do.


More work should be done on implementing local Red Lists into iNat, so people would have more idea on statuses of species they see, IUCN can be very biased with any taxa that have big range, and of course small places like counties and others of the same size can have endangered populations of something that is totally ok in another place.


Also, unless you know for sure the photographer did not have a permit to handle the species, one can’t assume it was an illegal act.


I miss a flag button for illegal behavior. Not to punish anyone, but for the educational purposes mentioned above. If illegal pictures are treated in the same way as are regular observations, without declared community agreement not to do so, there will be no end to the kill-to-ID mentality.
iNat could be a role model in how the human species treats our fellow planet residents.
I’d apprechiate that very much.


(we/us pronouns) We would prefer that evidence demonstrating illegal practices not be displayed for public consumption. So even if the record remains (in any form), could photos showing illegal activity be redacted from public consumption?

Also, the consideration might be necessary of when the law was passed relative to when the observation was made; that is, an observation could have been made before the illegal handling law was passed.

We hope that anyone communicating with an observer who has posted a photo of illegal activity would present them with information (facts) and not publicly shame, humiliate, guilt, or threaten the observer, even in our zeal to protect species.


You already can flag them, see https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/wildlife-trade-observations-on-inaturalist/13672


ah yes, now I found it, thanks.

i just don’t think iNat should be trying to police laws globally, it’s a huge rabbit hole and huge ethical issue too. If the US government decides i should be thrown in a jail cell for documenting a species near an oil pipeline, is iNat goin to help facilitate that? There are so many layers to this. I think yes, it makes sense to alert people that handling certain species may be illegal in certain areas. Even if the person doing it had legal permission the note would alert otehrs who might want to do the same but shouldn’t. Of course it does not answer the question of how iNat could possibly track all of the conservation laws in all of the Earth’s national and local juristictions.


I suppose it’s a balance between the real need to determine welfare of the organisms and the concern that false positives could cause real problems and create a culture of fear around uploading anything at all. I don’t know where I stand on it. I have seen some pictures around the web of giant clams that are foraged, from places where to the best of my knowledge it may be banned, but conservation law is quite complex and I wouldn’t feel qualified to police those pictures despite being an expert in giant clams that works with them every day. Basically, I would be concerned about less qualified users flagging posts incorrectly when the topic is anything but cut and dried.
That being said, I really appreciate this instinct of yours to consider the sourcing and ethics of wildlife pictures. I myself have had a longtime vendetta online against wildlife pics of dead or mistreated animals that are manipulated into unnatural poses.


Maybe addressing national/local laws as part of localization in the iNaturalist Network Portals would be a start?


I think the intent of the observer is obviously important here - in the OP’s example, Coenagrion mercuriale is protected in some localities but is extremely difficult or impossible to differentiate at a distance from C. hastulatum or C. pulchellum - the three species have substantial habitat and range overlap and can really only be suitably differentiated in the hand or in the net. For inat to be able to address this “illegal” activity, they would need to have a very strong database on both the letter of the law in each country as well as the spirit of the law - netting a threatened insect by accident may be an actual violation of the law in one jurisdiction while intent to harm may be a component in another. The posted French law uses the term “intentional disturbance” - given that the naturalist could very reasonably think they were catching C. pulchellum until they noticed two tiny spines on one body segment, I don’t really think the described activity violates the law at all. The question then becomes how one defines “intentional” and how one defines " disturbance" under French law - this is something that iNat has no business trying to keep track of for 140+ countries.


By following a link in this topic to another topic with a link to another, I found four of my own observations in a project called “Changing Wildlife Tourism in Peru”: https://www.inaturalist.org/observations?captive=any&place_id=any&project_id=66767&subview=table&user_id=paloma&verifiable=any. I took these photos on a tour conducted by a company operating out of the United States. I have no idea whether the activity was illegal in Peru, but I am happy that this project captured my observations. I would welcome highly visiible indications of questionable practices on my observations.


@tworm @pops34 Welcome to the Forum! Always an interesting place to visit!

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I think this is a major point, which I was trying to make poorly. Laws are different from city to province/state to country. What I am allowed to do in Winnipeg may be illegal in Fargo, USA, just south of me. Having iNat responsible for policing the intricacies of the worldwide environmental law is somewhat unreasonable.