Combating Wildlife Trafficking: Is Technology the Solution?

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Two remaining elephants.

Combating Wildlife Trafficking: Is Technology the Solution?

You might be surprised to hear that elephants significantly shape ecosystems, environments, and landscapes in Africa and Asia with their movements and behaviors. A keystone of their ecosystems, elephants clear the understory of forests, create watering holes, provide food through their manure, and disperse seeds and leaves. Their habitat modifications enable alternative plant growth, create access to water and food resources for other animals, and promote biodiversity. Did you know some scientists believe elephants have a crucial role in global carbon storage, too? Elephant activities allow trees to grow larger and taller, meaning greater levels of carbon sequestration (a process in which carbon is captured and stored) by forests! Without healthy elephant populations, vegetation suffers and trees may struggle to store carbon emissions effectively.

An estimated 26 million elephants once roamed the African continent during the 19th century. Starting in the late 1800s and early 1900s, demand for piano keys, brush handles, jewelry, combs, pool balls, and other products ignited an ivory frenzy in Europe. Because of the increased demand for ivory, we have lost millions of elephants over the past two centuries and populations continue to rapidly decline today. Current African elephant populations are estimated to be between 470,000 and 690,000 as a result of widespread poaching, and around 35,000 to 40,000 Asian elephants remain. Currently, these intelligent, social, and emotional creatures are largely threatened by poaching and wildlife trafficking, the fourth largest transnational organized crime in the world. The natural balance of forest and desert ecosystems where elephants live and the growth and survival of numerous plant and animal species face uncertainty if the demand for ivory continues to grow.

The United States is a leader in the fight against wildlife trafficking. Congressional acts and laws - such as the Eliminate, Neutralize, and Disrupt (END) Wildlife Trafficking Act - help protect iconic wildlife species that are threatened by the illegal wildlife trade. Additionally, the United States combats wildlife trafficking through reducing demand for illegal wildlife products, strengthening global enforcement, and expanding international collaboration.

But laws are not enough: we need innovation and technological solutions to beat this crime. The criminal networks who buy, trade, and sell illegal wildlife products are growing more sophisticated and we need new ways to target them. In honor of World Elephant Day and the State Department’s efforts to leverage the use of technology as a way to combat wildlife trafficking, we are excited to launch the fourth annual Zoohackathon! Zoohackathon promotes technology solutions, builds cross-sector collaboration, raises awareness, and empowers communities to combat wildlife trafficking. 

2018 New Delhi Zoohackathon paticipants work to solve wildlife conservation challenges with technology.

During the 48-hour competitions, university students, software developers, coders, graphic designers, and wildlife enthusiasts come together to create tech solutions that help tackle wildlife conservation problems. Teams work on one “problem statement” throughout the competition; these statements highlight current wildlife trafficking challenges and build upon current technologies that already exist. After the hackathon events conclude, teams pitch their ideas to a panel of judges who pick a winning solution based on strength, usability, and interface of the prototypes and tools. A Washington, D.C.-based committee chooses the global winner.

2018 Spain Zoohackathon participants working to find solutions to wildlife conservancy issues with technology.

Past Zoohackathons have produced solutions such as: 

  • A website that educates travelers about the types of souvenirs that they should and should not buy while they are traveling abroad (http://www.safesouvenirs.com/)
  • A Google Chrome extension that can help consumers make wildlife-friendly purchases (https://bit.ly/2MccbdE).

This year, the Department of State is proud to co-host the annual Zoohackathon in 15 cities around the world:

  • Bogotá, Colombia
  • Boston, MA, and Cleveland, OH, United States
  • Cairo, Egypt
  • Entebbe, Uganda
  • Gaborone, Botswana
  • Geneva, Switzerland
  • Helsinki, Finland
  • Hong Kong SAR, China
  • Manila, Philippines
  • New Delhi and Kolkata, India
  • Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia
  • São Paulo, Brazil
  • Vienna, Austria

Are you interested in learning more about wildlife trafficking? Do you have talents and passions you wish to utilize at a Zoohackathon event? Check out more information here and consider joining a team near you!

Also, take action and help us stop wildlife trafficking! Help elephants and other wildlife species by refusing to buy ivory or other wildlife products and spread the word about wildlife trafficking to your friends and family.

For More Information:

About the Author(s): Victoria Peabody and Ryann Howard serve in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES). 

Victoria Peabody