Is Secrecy Good Conservation Policy?: The Case Of Lazarus Species
For most conservation-minded advocates, it may seem like a forgone conclusion that one of the best ways to protect vulnerable species is to publicize their plight. When animals are threatened, it seems natural to want to tell the world about the trouble they face in the hopes that people will care. However, research on so-called “lazarus species” (species that have been considered extinct but were then “rediscovered”) is showing that publicizing the recovery of a species may actually put those animals at more risk. In this study, researchers show that a policy of secrecy may actually be more effective in protecting lazarus species and helping them recover even further.
The original reason for supposed extinction is a major driver of whether or not secrecy is warranted when a species is rediscovered. We know that species can disappear for different reasons: some animals may go extinct because their habitat is destroyed; in other cases, species may go extinct because they are hunted and killed directly. Indeed, the authors outline the case of the Sumatran rhinoceros in Kalimantan, Indonesia, a species hunted to the brink of extinction for their highly value horns. They were thought to be extinct for about 27 years. After the species was rediscovered, there was a “publicize-and-protect” strategy to try to pressure the Indonesian government to act on making sure the rhinos did not disappear again. But according to the researchers, protection policies are ineffective without enforcement. In their view, a “secrecy-based strategy” could have created a better and more effective roadmap, including:
(1) better knowledge of how many rhinos remain and where; (2) designing and implementing conservation actions; and (3) identifying capable conservation partners. If implemented by people who know how to keep a secret, protective management could have been in place without any unnecessary pressure on the remaining rhinos.
All in all, the study shows that there may be situations where secrecy is favourable but also that “keeping secrets is admittedly difficult.” As they note in the case of the Sumatran rhino, a “publicize-and-protect” strategy effectively “closed the door for a strategy based on secrecy.” In other words, when it comes to different conservation strategies, it is always possible to try to enact conservation policies quietly first, but it is not possible to be public first and then go backwards. Unfortunately, there are both financial and logistical pressures that make publicity important, and this is something animal advocates will have to consider as they move forward.