Poachers Hack into a Tiger’s GPS Collar: Are Wildlife Tracking Devices Helping Criminals?

Candice Gaukel Andrews October 22, 2013 18
Tiger drinking water

Being able to pinpoint a tiger’s exact location has saved poachers days of bushwhacking through dense jungles. ©Toby Sinclair

There’s no doubt that tracking devices, such as GPS collars, have helped researchers monitor and conserve wildlife. While the necessity of capturing and handling wild animals — and the high costs involved — in order to attach these mechanisms has been controversial for some time, now a band-new, sinister use of these tools is being discovered.

Wildlife officials responsible for monitoring Bengal tigers in the Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve in the Satpura Hills of central India say that a computer system was recently hacked to collect data from a tiger’s GPS collar. This cybercrime, being called the first of its kind, would allow poachers real-time data on where the animal is within a reserve, eliminating the dangerous work of physically tracking it down.

As many populations of endangered animals continue to decline due to rampant poaching, conservationists are responding by increasingly turning to high-tech tools to save these threatened species. In the wrong hands, however, the information gained from these instruments could be instructing criminals with the opposite intentions.

Are technological advances in tracking techniques helping poachers more than they are assisting wildlife protectors?

A cyberpoach averted …

Tiger swimming

Per WWF, there are less than 2,500 tigers left in the wild. @Toby Sinclair

Before the use of electronic tracking devices on animals, most illegal hunters faced long days of bushwhacking through dark and tangled jungles before even hoping to spot elusive creatures, such as Bengal tigers. Now, however, a dangerous and more deadly breed of cybersavvy poachers can use conservation tools to help target their illicit prey.

In February 2013, researchers at the 210-square-mile Panna Tiger Reserve in India attached a GPS satellite collar on a two-and-a-half-year-old, male Bengal tiger identified as Panna-211. The tracking collar, which cost nearly $5,000, has satellite- and ground-tracking capabilities within an accuracy of 8.2 feet. It was configured to provide GPS data every hour for the first three months and every four hours for the next five months. In July 2013, the battery expired; and the satellite feedback in the collar stopped working.

The Times of India reported that it was at about this time that the head of the monitoring program, Dr. Krishnamurthy Ramesh, received a notification that someone more than 620 miles away had attempted to access his e-mail account where the GPS tracking data was sent. It is thought that the server prevented access; but if the cyberpoachers did obtain the encrypted GPS data, Ramesh states that it can only be decoded with specialized data-converter software and specific radio-collar product information. As a precaution, however, Panna-211 was moved from the Panna Tiger Reserve to the Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve. The incident has caused Panna officials to ramp up the reserve’s security; in January 2014, conservationists will deploy surveillance drones and set up wireless sensors to detect human intrusions.

… but for how long?

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the wildlife-trafficking industry is worth $7.8 to $10 billion per year. It’s booming, especially since traffickers have shifted to online sales. For example, “code words” are now being used to describe illegal items sold on eBay.

Tiger walking

Unfortunately, tigers are a valuable black market commodity. @Toby Sinclair

In the case of Bengal tigers, there are fewer than 2,500 left in the wild. Unfortunately, they fetch a high price on the black market, with individual parts going for up to $2,000 and whole tigers priced at $50,000. Luckily, this time at the Panna Tiger Reserve, it is believed that encryption and e-mail security thwarted poachers, but that doesn’t mean more talented criminals couldn’t break through in the future.

Although wildlife-tracking methods are getting more sophisticated and many of them now require less stressful handling of the animals, are there any electronic techniques that are foolproof against hacking? For security reasons, should the monitoring of endangered species be kept low-tech?

As for Panna-211, a team of wildlife officials at the Bori-Satpura Tiger Reserve stay within 1,600 feet of the tiger at all times to deter poachers — a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy

18 Comments »

  1. Matteo M. December 31, 2013 at 8:07 am - Reply

    I think the best way to help researchers but not poachers is to use strong cryptography for transmitted data, with keys known only to researchers: that way poachers can’t read that data and trace the collar. Sure, they could pinpoint its location, but if the intermittent signal has long silent periods or is emitted only when researchers tell the collar to, it’d be much more convenient to search for tigers using their own eyes; also consider that tigers move, so…

  2. Drew Martin October 27, 2013 at 5:16 pm - Reply

    We need stronger penalties for poaching and more efforts to stop it. We need to stop the markets where these parts are purchased.

  3. Phillip Tureck - FRGS October 27, 2013 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    The key to the saving of the tiger and many other endangered species is the education that body parts have most mystical cure. Ivory looks better on it’s original owner and to give animals the right to live alongside mankind.

  4. M October 25, 2013 at 9:24 am - Reply

    Is it possible to put some kind of device in the collar, so if the tiger is poached, the poachers are themselves killed? Might as well address the crime at the scene. It won’t help identify the links higher up in the chain but it will reduce the number of poachers.

  5. Phillip Tureck - FRGS October 24, 2013 at 1:05 pm - Reply

    I should add in all seriousness Julian the issue I believe falls into two areas.

    1. The need to educate and thereby reduce or eradicate the demand of body parts.

    2. To come to a situation where humankind and the wildlife can live alongside together with defined conservancies and parks that will give many of the animals the chance to live.

    A very difficult conundrum that is taxing the minds of many wiser people than us.

    But to keep this in people’s mind is the most important point that we can make.

  6. Julian Fearnley October 24, 2013 at 8:13 am - Reply

    If it leads to the death of that tiger by poaches I would assume yes, they have. But weigh this up with how many tigers have been saved by a GPS collar. Without going into each conservation problem at great depth, everyone needs to understand this, ‘we are the problem’, humans have gone too far, the beauty of the natural world is being removed far quicker than other species can evolve.
    Areas to concentrate on –
    Education of local inhabitants to protect the tiger and not exploit.
    Prevention of tigers taking human livestock.
    Preserving habitat particularly corridors that link tiger populations to preserve their gene pool.
    Stopping poachers by paying them more to protect than kill and reeducating them.
    Zoo breeding programs to reintroduce tigers to safe national parks.
    Scientific research that proves tiger penis is not an essential ingredient in Chinese medicine.

  7. Melania Padilla October 23, 2013 at 4:12 pm - Reply

    This is so sad and frustrating, organizations and conservationists as well have to think ahead of these criminals!!

  8. Paul Johnson October 23, 2013 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    This is so depressing and infuriating, Candice…

  9. Tony Farrar October 23, 2013 at 9:15 am - Reply

    Impossible to comprehend, but indicative of the dire situation the world is in.

    In my humble opinion, technology is not the issue the Human race is.

    The fact is third world poverty creates the foundation for these types of atrocity’s, and the western world may look in horror at the situations as they unravel, then return to their cozy lives, and comment via mechanisms like this, and sponsor a snow leopard for £5,00 a month.
    In short there is no solution to this other than some sort of world changing ,population decreasing occurrence.. Or major shift change in the Western/Eastern worlds approach, which includes although not limited to the creation of financial beneficiaries from the third world becoming the protectors of these amazing species, with incentives to do so.

    If there was not a market for these things they would not happen and sadly , creatures ranging from sharks, to tigers, and many others, body parts being viewed as some sort of power enhancing, trophy to be consumed or collected to enhance stature or health.

    To sum up its disgusting, and we as a race should be ashamed of ourselves, I only hope that the small number of people who dedicate their lives to the protection of these fantastic creatures, maintain their focus, and do not allow these evil forces to deter them from the amazing job they are doing, it must be soul destroying to be one of those people, and witness these appalling acts of cowardice.

  10. Phillip Tureck - FRGS October 23, 2013 at 9:13 am - Reply

    Turn it around – any poacher found is collared so that we know where they are.

    • Jon Bagel December 13, 2016 at 1:28 pm - Reply

      Niiiice

  11. Jessica October 23, 2013 at 5:33 am - Reply

    I wonder who is paying the $50,000. for these animals? What is the penalty for these crimes? Maybe the punishment needs to be more severe for it to end. JS

  12. Maurice Dixon October 23, 2013 at 5:16 am - Reply

    Despicable activity by criminals, but not unsurprising – the more connected we get, the more vulnerable we get to data violation and cyber-exploitation for illegal means. You need to protect the whole system end-to-end – your cyber security is only as strong as the weakest link – and this might a technology issue, or equally someone in your organisation (willingly or under duress) providing passwords, backdoors, etc.
    Just look what facebook, twitter, google, etc, are doing with you information.

  13. Whitney Stohr October 23, 2013 at 5:11 am - Reply

    Interesting… I guess the question is whether the benefits of using technology to track poachers outweighs the risk that poachers will use the same technology to track the animal? I think technology can be a huge benefit, but certainly these type of risks cannot be ignored.

  14. Sandra Oliveira October 22, 2013 at 2:45 pm - Reply

    second that….

  15. Roger Harris October 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm - Reply

    A number of unprintable expletives come to mind…

  16. Ella Jeans October 22, 2013 at 12:32 pm - Reply

    I wonder what has to happen for these poachers to stop doing this?

  17. John Marland October 22, 2013 at 11:28 am - Reply

    Depends on how low tech you mean. I can track any emitting device. There used to be collars that we scoffed at, which required you to get very close to your tracked animal every so often , from days to months, and download stored location data.
    We laughed at it, but it’s probably the most secure. No emissions until you tell it to.
    If an animal is tagged with any device that emits RF (radio frequencies), be it for antennas or satellites, it can be easily located.
    ….JW

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