In February, the Journal of the British Tarantula Society published a paper describing a new species of tarantula, which was discovered in a national park in Sarawak, Malaysia. While the male of the species was an unremarkable brown, the female had eye-catching, electric blue legs.
New spiders are discovered all the time, and the paper likely would have gone largely unnoticed — were it not for an article in Science magazine that appeared soon afterward.
The article claimed that the tarantula researchers had received their specimens secondhand from private collectors in Poland and Britain, who had poached them in Malaysia.
Neither Ray Gabriel nor Danniella Sherwood, the authors of the study, responded to email requests for comment. But Peter Kirk, chairman of the British Tarantula Society and editor of the society’s journal, said the collectors had shown the scientists an import permit from Poland, and they “had no reason to think due process wasn’t followed.”
“The paper absolutely will not be retracted, because it’s a completely legitimate published paper,” he said.
The incident has reignited a decades-old debate among scientists and hobbyists alike about research ethics, specimen collection and “biopiracy” — the use of natural resources without obtaining permission from local communities or sharing any benefits with them.
“The majority of responses I’ve seen are people saying, ‘Yes, we need to stop this,’ but there’s also been a fair amount of people basically trying to justify the poaching and smuggling of these tarantulas,” said Ernest Cooper, a conservation consultant in British Columbia.
“It’s this very strange, slightly colonial attitude of, ‘We know better than developing countries, so their laws don’t matter.’”
Illegal wildlife trade is dominated by headlines about criminal cartels trafficking in ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales. But scientists can also be complicit in illegal trade by poaching specimens themselves or by working with those who do.
This type of wildlife crime occurs on a much smaller scale, but experts in a variety of fields believe it is a significant issue.
“It’s a problem globally, and it happens a lot,” said Sérgio Henriques, chairman of the spider and scorpion group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
For Henriques and others, this sort of collection raises deep ethical concerns. “We’re the scientists, the ones who are supposed to know better and who should be leading by example,” he said. “If we can’t follow the rules, why are we demanding that others do?”