Hacking illegal animal trafficking

Could a bunch of computer programmers be the answer to the illegal wildlife trade?
18 October 2016

Interview with 

Sophie Maxwell, ZSL London Zoo, Mahvash Siddiqui, US embassy, Zack, Eddie, Caroline, Zoo-hackers


After habitat loss, the buying and selling of illegal animal products, as decorations,Team Lookout working medicine, jewellery or meat, is the biggest threat to wildlife conservation worldwide. But it's a complex problem to solve - do you tackle the demand, the trafficking or the poaching? Well, maybe the solution lies a little outside the box. Georgia Mills went down to ZSL London Zoo where, last weekend, when they weren't trying to track down an escaping gorilla, they were participating in a big global event...

Georgia - This is is a sound from a room in the heart of ZSL London Zoo. Instead of the usual fare of lions or penguins, this room is full of programmers and conservationists who've been up for about two days straight - this is a hackathon.

Sophie - My name's Sophie Maxwell and I lead the conservation technology team here at ZSL...

Mahvash - Hi. My name is Mahvash Siddiqui. I'm the science diplomat at the US Embassy in London.

Sophie - So this is the first ever global ZooHackathon event. It's organised with the US State Department and it brings together zoos from around the world to come up with solutions to the illegal wildlife trade.

Mahvash - Well, for the US, wildlife trafficking basically is a Presidential priority. So our President has basically asked for the US Government to look for solutions which are out of the box, twenty-first century solutions to basically deal with twenty-first century challenges.

Sophie - So, there are a hundred and fifty participants who have all come together to answer some problem statements; these problem statements have been set for them my conservationists. So conservationists have come together around the world and said - what's really going to transform and solve this problem.

Mahvash - People have been involved in curbing wildlife trafficking for decades and yet the trade is burgeoning - it's a ninety billion dollar trade.

Sophie - Some are doing coding, they're using lots of different scripting languages. They're using massive data sets here that we have as part of ZSL so we have big ecology data sets that they can use to feed their solutions. They're using newsfeeds from APIs to bust criminal networks. They're using creative solutions as well. So we've got strategic people, coders, designers, all coming together in a real team mix to pool their skills to pull this off in a forty-eight hour period.

Georgia - Can a group of volunteers build something from scratch fueled only by copious amounts of coffee and the odd burrito, which could then be used to tackle the complex problem of the illegal wildlife trade? I met with some of the teams...

Zack - Hi I'm Zack Baynham-Herd. I'm a PhD student at Edinburgh University. Our team name's "the underdogs" but our products is wild coin.

Georgia - Talk me through - what's wild coin?

Zack - Essentially, wild coin is peer to peer conservation. A platform for people who have the financial resources to invest in fund conservation and those on the ground who are actually doing conservation. The idea being anyone could be a conservationist.

Georgia - Okay. So how would this work - is this something people can download?

Zack - Yes but this would be an app that you can download on your smartphone or it's accessible to the internet. And you search for any species that you care about, that you want to preserve or any cause such as illegal wildlife trafficking. You can search and you can find the people and the organisations on the ground who are actually doing this stuff and you can decided how much you want to fund, and who you want to fund, and what you want to fund.

Georgia - Oh, I see. So say I'm like I want to save the tiny red panda, I can find out exactly who is doing that work?

Zack - And if the tiny red panda isn't being funded you can post or you can say that you want to fund this. And then conservationists who have the resources to actually do conservation but maybe don't have funding can be like - hey, here's someone willing to fund this; we can do this.

Eddie - I'm Eddie. This is the team - we are reading palms and we are working on palm oil potential conflict zones. Deforestation and native forest land for palm oil plantations is disinheriting orangutans from their native habitat. There are poachers who use the networks created by the palm oil trade when they're going into native forests they're creating roads which are then give access to poachers.

Georgia - What's your creation going to do about this?

Eddie - We're creating an app which alerts people on the ground to changes in land use. So there's a data set from the copernicus satellite from the European Space Agency; they have two which orbit the Earth every ten days giving us an ability to update satellite imagery every five days. From that we can extrapolate any change of land use to be able to identify uncertified palm plantations and new sources of habitat destruction and stop that from happening.

Georgia - A matchmaking service for conservationists and an eye in the sky monitoring illegal deforestation. Pretty impressive for forty-eight hours.

And that was only the start. There was also an app for people to anonymously whistle blow on poaching, a facebook bot which could tell you if there was pangolin in your stew, and a fun looking game which raises awareness about the ivory trade. And then...

Caroline - erm So "look out" is basically a very user oriented web app.

Georgia - This is Caroline Fletcher, slightly buzzing after her team were just announced victorious. Caroline's team had designed a system which alerted tourists about the illegal products on sale in countries they're about to visit.

Caroline - So a lot of people are unknowingly buying, so for example, Macaw earrings, which look really beautiful. Like you see feathers all the time - why shouldn't you buy it. It doesn't really make sense but, actually, they're really endangered. And it's creating that awareness, creating that knowledge about unknown illegal wildlife trafficking.

Georgia - So Caroline's team won this prize but... what's next for all these other ideas? Back to Sophie Maxwell...

Sophie - Well, we were just having conversations about that now and we have a portal called "Wild Labs." We're encouraging everybody to register on Wild Labs to connect donors, corporations, commercial environments with ZSL, with this talent who has come to us today, to take these to the next level because ZSL is wholly committed to really furthering these solutions to make impact on the ground. So we can take away some today and actually start using those things and really, what we want to do is just make sure that those evolve, they don't die, they live on, and they make impact.


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