How Tech Can Help Save Wildlife: #Zoohackathon 2017 Launches at the San Diego Safari Park

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Sumatran tigers.
Young Sumatran tigers at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

How Tech Can Help Save Wildlife: #Zoohackathon 2017 Launches at the San Diego Safari Park

With partially webbed toes and uniquely thin stripes, the Sumatran tiger is well adapted to thrive in its natural habitat of swamps, rivers, and peat forests of Indonesia.  Deforestation and wildlife trafficking have led to the rapid decline of the Sumatran tiger population – it is estimated that there are as few as 400 Sumatran tigers left in the world -- giving it the designation of “Critically Endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List in 2008.

The San Diego Safari Park, home to more than 3,000 animals including several Sumatran tigers, is one of the leaders in the effort to conserve these majestic but vulnerable creatures not just at the park but in the wild too.  The Park’s Population Sustainability and Recovery Ecology teams are currently working to track these tigers in the wild.  Unbeknownst to many of their visitors, many zoos like the San Diego Safari Park play a critical role in conservation through research and study of animals in their natural habitats.

With the shared goal of conserving the world's wildlife and their ecosystems, and combating wildlife trafficking, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs hosted its second Zoohackathon at the San Diego Safari Park from September 22-24, in partnership with the San Diego Zoo.  This event helps create technological solutions to combat wildlife trafficking – the poaching and illegal transit, trade and sale of wildlife – which is the world’s fourth largest transnational crime, generating tens of billions of dollars each year for international criminals. 

Throughout the weekend at the Zoohackathon, coders, technologists, and university students brainstormed, designed, and developed solutions that can help combat wildlife trafficking.  All of the groups created innovative and unique solutions, but in the end, this year’s top three winners were: 

1st place: the ICC Local Rangers group created atext messaging artificial intelligence bot that collects data from users on macaw bird populations in Costa Rica using easy-to-understand conversational data collection.

2nd place:  the Ara Vista groupcreated an app that can be deployed in low signal ranges.  The app also incentivizes locals to upload photos of wildlife to help scientists track their habitats and migration patterns. 

3rd place: the Okapi group created an application thathelps to accurately recognize and report wildlife species shown in camera trap images. 

This coming weekend, October 6-8, the Zoohackathon goes international with events in London and New Delhi!  We wish them the best of luck for their events and look forward to seeing each group’s solutions!  For more information, visit http://www.zoohackathon.com and be sure to follow the action on Twitter using #Zoohackathon!

And back to the tigers.  Before the San Diego Zoohackathon started, we got to meet some of the spectacular tigers that live in the Safari Park.  One of the tiger cubs was actually a trafficked pet whose owner had attempted to smuggle it into the United States. Thanks to the intervention of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the animal was discovered and brought to the San Diego Zoo for nurturing and proper tiger socialization and care.  The tiger cub is a poignant reminder why the Zoohackathon and other efforts to combat wildlife trafficking are so important – for far too many species, every life counts in the struggle to avoid extinction forever.

About the Authors: Victoria Peabody and Georgia Mu serve in the Office of Policy and Public Outreach, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.

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Victoria Peabody
Georgia Mu