Reports in the media have raised concerns that poachers may be using social media to track down and kill elephants. Members of the public have echoed these concerns. Since ElephantVoices conservation project in the Maasai Mara, Kenya, Elephant Partners, involves participation by the public and the sharing of data on elephants we wish to contribute our perspective on this serious and important topic.
There are many online sources where relatively precise information about elephant locations can be found, and it is impossible to keep such information out of the public domain. Visitors to elephant habitats inside and outside protected areas use their GPS-enabled cameras and phones, and they post on Facebook, blogs, Flickr, Google Earth and elsewhere. The sharing of information in our digital age is increasing and is without boundaries or limits, and this we cannot control.
In the Mara ecosystem elephants are being killed with spears, arrows and guns as well as through other methods. These killings are mostly carried out by individuals from the local community who don't need the help of social media to find elephants. In the real and gruesome world of poaching, the whole chain of buyers, smugglers and middlemen including crime syndicates involved, rely on the knowledge and willingness of local people to track down elephants. Middlemen could, in principle, ask these individuals to source ivory from specific areas that they feel might be lucrative. The possibility that these traders might use social media is obviously of concern.
Our perspective is that unless we are going to keep elephants behind secure fences, the sharing of knowledge and the engagement of people in conservation is the only way we will be able to protect elephants in the long term. Social media, such as Facebook, can be instrumental in creating awareness globally and for engaging members of local communities in conservation. Information shared can include news, the exchange of ideas and views, solutions to problems, poaching incidents and the movements of wildlife. Such information sharing, and the compassion, knowledge and understanding it leads to, is the key to wildlife sustainability and protection.
Unfortunately elephants cannot hide anymore, and we shouldn't try to hide them - we need to know them, share their stories and protect them where they are. That said ElephantVoices will not in any way risk that the data we collect might be used by criminals to source elephants. Since our databases were launched in 2011 we have had in place a time delay on locational data. However, in 2012, with poaching escalating and the Mara seeing increasing numbers of elephants being killed, we implemented password-protection of the databases. Those wishing to use them must register by providing some personal information, and be approved by ElephantVoices.
ElephantVoices, September 2012