Downsides to iNat observation locations (with emphasis towards herps)

I came across this instagram post:



Nothing new
Poachers will find your herps anyway, they don’t need iNat for that, and if they’re so new to it, then obscured locations, which also obscure date now, are enough.
Also cancer comment is, hm.


This has been discussed on the forum already, as @marina_gorbunova mentioned. If you think a taxon should be obscured, go to the taxon’s page and, under the graph, click on Curation and then select “Flag for curation”. Write a note about why it should be obscured. You can also @-mention other knowledgeable users in your flag to get their perspective.

I should note both Lampropeltis zonata and Lampropeltis multifasciata are obscured on iNat. We’re also working with NatureServe and US State Heritage programs to get on-the-ground advice for herp obscuration in the US (see here).


Funny enough, the herper’s that I know that moan about this the most, are also the ones that have taken the most home to keep or sell. Herper’s are the problem, not iNat.


I was just part of a discussion on this. My general view is that while poaching is obviously a problem for certain populations of certain species, the vast majority of herp taxa on iNat and the vast majority of observations don’t need to be forcefully obscured unless the user wants to. The real enemy, at least here in southern California where I live, is development and habitat loss, and I feel that a lot of herpers use poaching fear as a way to gatekeep the hobby. It’s absurdly hard to get into without knowing people when your average herper online wouldn’t even share a place to find zebra-tailed lizards or some equally totally-safe-from-serious-poaching species with an interested newcomer - if not for iNat.

To repeat the same argument I make in opposing making every single dudleya species obscured on iNat/Calflora because Dudleya farinosa up north has some high profile smuggling busts, poaching existing at all for a species is not the same as it being a serious threat to a species. And to paraphrase someone I remember reading on FHF recently, a single neighborhood built on undeveloped land is going to kill more herps than a team of dedicated poachers could ever dream of.

That’s not to say poaching is never an issue. And I completely understand obscuring locations like flip sites (I do that too, along with any herps that someone else showed me, unless I get permission), as well as personal preference. Some people obscure everything they post and that’s fine. But I’m not about to feel bad for posting a road cruised sidewinder with a precise location, or a desert horned lizard, or a baja tree frog, or any number of other common species found in a not necessarily repeatable way. The gain from doing that outweighs the harm in my view.

By the way, I’ve seen quite a few instances of habitat damage by herpers just this year - board lines removed, boards left flipped over, rocks left flipped over, granite outcroppings with caprocks and slab ripped off - and ironically none of these spots had any unobscured snakes on iNat. Much of this damage would require only a few seconds of effort on the perpetrator’s part to not do. There’s honestly an issue with the herping community as a whole beyond being afraid of newcomers, especially when a significant number have a strange fascination with collecting (legally or not) that I don’t really understand.

People get mad about birds having more conservation resources than herps and then do everything they can to keep people from getting excited about herps in harmless ways, what can I say.


Multifasciata wasn’t until quite recently, but I can count on one hand the number of flipped snakes (supposedly the only predictable way to find them) that were unobscured. Though that’s a species I won’t argue to unobscure, I highly doubt it was a serious issue when 99% of the unobscured examples were just found on a trail or next to a stream which is a very unrepeatable way to find them.

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With a very few exceptions, development, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change are the things driving species to rareness and extinction, not poaching. That’s not to say poaching isn’t a problem, but it’s not the main problem. A team of the most dedicated poachers in the world working day and night couldn’t do as much harm to a reptile population as a single badly-placed freeway with no snake crossings.

It always irritates me when I see people wanting to keep everything private - to me, that seems like the most certain way to doom it. Firstly because you have to involve the community in caring about a species in order to protect it in any way - the spotted owl and the tiger salamander would be long extinct without ordinary people caring and campaigning for them.

And second, because if nobody but a handful of experts knows a location is sensitive, there’s a good chance it will be damaged by accident before anyone in the know can intervene.

I was just reading about the Baker’s Larkspur, an endangered wildflower from my county, and found out about this:

In July 2002, county-hired road crews mowing weeds in the critical habitat area cut down 30 to 50 Baker’s larkspurs. Scientists initially believed the action may have caused the species’ extinction. In October 2004, the plant was nearly made extinct in earnest by road workers using heavy machinery to unclog a roadside drain. The last remaining population of about 100 plants was reduced to five individuals.

It seems to me that if the locations had been known to more people, the species might have been saved. (It’s not quite extinct yet, but I’ll be very surprised if it recovers).


Furthermore, iNaturalist has all the tools to protect what you upload. You can make the location private, which is the only foolproof solution for what the complaints are about. So, the solution exists, people just need to use the solution. iNaturalist can’t force people to do that. The community needs to educate one another so people know to use that tool.


I think herp poachers have had other resources to tap for finding desirable species long before iNat came along. There is lots of detailed locality information available in published and online sources – Arctos and VertNet databases for museum specimens, Geographic Distribution notes in Herpetological Review, many regional field guides, etc. Some of the authors and journals are taking a little more care about obscuring locations for sensitive species, but there are still many sources of info out there. At least iNat is quite proactive about obscuring such data.


Privatizing data makes it just about completely useless. It can’t be used by local land managers, it can’t be used by people looking at a wider area. Even Obscuring has setbacks, I was doing some local research on an auto-obscured bee by reaching out to people that posted them in my area, after doing that I found a hot zone that wasn’t on anybody’s radar.

I’ve seen location secrecy taken to ludicrous levels. We used to have a guy who would report rare birds he found in our sites, a year after he found them. We are the land managers, why would he think that he should keep that secret from us. Also had times where we start a restoration project and after we do people say “oh you ruined the habitat of [fill in favorite taxon here]!!” Why did they think to not let us know about that back when they first found it?


To the people saying herpers are the problem and not inat. You are correct about one thing, herpers are 100% a problem. Many people don’t know how to ethically look for animals and it can end up in habitat destruction and increased poaching in popular areas. However, Inaturalist makes it extremely easy for people who aren’t ethically herping to access these areas with the single click of a button. Something needs to change. Like I said in the previous thread about this topic, people are using inaturalist to access species with incredibly sensitive habitat such as California mountain king snakes, and are leaving it basically uninhabitable for the animals by not properly placing rocks back, destroying cap rocks, and even collecting animals in large numbers for profit. I personally have visited a few popular sites that used to be lowkey and have becoming extremely trafficked after a few inat pins had been placed. Cap rocks destroyed, logs not put back, habitat disturbed that may never return to normal because it bothered every week by people looking for animals. Inaturalist needs to obscure animals with sensitive habitat. Inaturalist shouldn’t be contributing to habitat destruction. Obscured locations are not enough. I put my theory to the test and looked at a few obscured pins in the area of an animal with very specific habitat and habits and within 5 minutes I was able to locate exactly where they came from. Inaturalist needs to make a change for the good of the animals that depend on their sensitive and minimally undisturbed habitat to survive. Someone’s observation that does nothing to further scientific research is not worth the destruction of habitat that these animals face by the very people who enjoy them.


This is one of the reasons why I would like to see a selection of different levels of obscuring, the rectangle being different sizes. Larger rectangles available for situations like you mentioned (high level obscure). The current size as another choice (medium level obscure). And a third, smaller size for instances where the species are common but you don’t want people to know exactly which house is yours (low level obscure). Yes you can make your accuracy circle bigger and move the center point away from your house, but what if you want to map out exact locations on your property for your own use. It’s been discussed before, but I doubt it will be implemented.


I guess I would suggest that most of these species’ ranges (especially in the US) are known at the level of 400 km2 - ie, people know what obscuration grid blocks these species are or are not in. If the species is enough of a habitat specialist that you can figure out where the habitat is in 400 km2 in 5 min, then other people are doing it too whether or not there is an iNat observation there.

Herpers (including me) have been finding habitat specialist species that way for years before iNat existed and will continue to do so whether or not obscured observations exist or not. If a species in a very little studied country was discovered in a totally new area then I could see this being an issue - a big range extension or outlying/relict population might become visible where otherwise it would not have been. But otherwise, I don’t think that this is a problem inherent to iNat - it comes down to herpers being irresponsible.


I doubt that iNat is currently seriously harming herp conservation as the Instagram poster claimed, unless they have evidence. I suggest iNat use an an adaptive approach which escalates toward increasingly obscuring observations or making them private in response to conservation concerns, for any particular wildlife group:

  1. The default state when no conservation concerns have arisen: obs. are public unless observers choose to make them obscured or private (private has downsides).
  2. If concerns arise: users can recommend each other optionally use obscured or private.
  3. If concerns continue from (2) or are large or evidenced: iNat obscures the entire taxon.
  4. If concerns continue from (3): users or iNat recommend optionally making obs. private.
  5. If concerns continue form (4): iNat makes the taxon private.

By using an approach something like this it can remove the possibility of harming conservation in this way, while also allowing obs. for eligible taxa to be as publicly useful as possible.

An alternative approach (which could be used in combination) would be to temporarily obscure location and date of public observations for a set time period after first posting them. That would cut down on the ability of people to seek out species from coordinates. Also in an adaptive manner like the above description, the length of time to obscure could be escalated to become longer or shorter over time in response to concern level and whether concerns continue, for each wildlife group.

“I doubt that inat is currently seriously harming herp conservation as the Instagram poster claimed, unless they have evidence”

The evidence is the destroyed cap rocks, trashed boardlines, flipped logs and rocks that haven’t been put back, the entire areas that are now uninhabitable for reptiles such as night lizards that depend on cap rocks. That is the evidence.


So which one of that points to iNat? Those are actions of people, you don’t know how they came to the spot.


I said I doubt there’s evidence for a conservation problem as “serious” as the Instragram poster implied. The poster implied iNat’s creating a massive problem, didn’t mention ways to fix it, and basically recommended not using iNat. I should clarify I do believe there’s some level of “poaching” in general, although I haven’t yet seen evidence clearly showing what portion is due to ordinary poaching and what’s due to iNat (even if it must be estimated). So, I’m interested in learning the scale or extent of the contribution to that from iNat, and just viewing any evidence, but not that there’s none. I also above gave my idea for how the problem could in principle be prevented in full. Which in short is to escalate to increasing levels of obscured and then private in response to conservation concerns or harms arising or persisting. I also suggest all observations could be temporarily obscured for a time limit from time of posting.

The spots that have the most destruction have the most pins. It doesn’t take that much to put two and two together. Inat has become more and more popular and the more pins, the more people are visiting. INaturalist makes it much easier for tons of people to access one spot, before it existed sure spots would be shared between friends ect but now it’s accessible to tons and tons of people, not just small groups of people. Just takes a few people to mess up habitat too. I’ve been to parks with minimal pins and seen little to no disturbance. After visiting a park in Northern California with over 100 pins I noticed almost every single intact log had been constantly flipped causing them to fall apart and the moisture seal to be practically non existent. Animals like salamanders depend on moisture seals.


Or it just means a lot of people know those places, which results in more observations.


Yes and more observations bring more people and more reckless herping