Zoohackathon: End the Loop

By: Judith G. Garber is the Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.

Helen is a pregnant southern white rhinoceros at the San Diego Zoo. Eventually biologists at the San Diego Zoo hope to transfer a northern white rhinoceros’ embryo to a southern white rhinoceros surrogate mother like Helen in order to preserve the breed. [State Department Photo]
The northern white rhino might be extinct before anyone can figure out how to use technology to save them.

They are already extinct in the wild due mostly to their reckless destruction by wildlife traffickers. Today only three such rhinos are still alive, guarded round the clock by armed rangers in a Kenyan conservancy. In time, experts plan to use existing DNA samples and in vitro fertilization (IVF) to create embryos with sufficient genetic diversity to bring the northern white rhino back. It is a last ditch measure by scientists to help preserve the biodiversity of our planet, which more threatened than ever by the illegal wildlife trade which generates billions of dollars each year for transnational criminal networks.

Many people erroneously think that wildlife trafficking is only a problem in Africa or Asia. Wildlife trafficking takes place on every continent.

The United States is the second largest illegal wildlife market in the world, and supply, transit, and demand are all major challenges. The solution to wildlife trafficking will take a complex and multifaceted approach. So why not hack a solution?

That is why, on October 7–9, the State Department partnered with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, WildLabs.net, the U.S. Wildlife Trafficking Alliance, and others to host Zoohackathons in five cities across the globe. The premise of the Zoohackathon is that technology can create original solutions to wildlife trafficking problem statements submitted by conservation experts from all over the world. Zoos that are leaders in the field of conservation technology in Sydney, London, San Diego, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. hosted the events, which included fun behind-the-scenes tours, talks by rangers, food, drinks, and lots of co-learning. Our teams even got to spend the night in the zoos! At the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. coders got to sleep in the Amazonia exhibit, and in San Diego they woke up with the okapis. We even spent some time with a cheetah whose best friend is a Labrador retriever!

Coders at Seattle Woodland Zoo’s Zoohackathon. [Photo courtesy of Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo]

Conservation and technology expert judges at each of the Zoohackathon sites picked winning teams based on the strength, scalability, and interface of the solutions created by participants. You can view demos of many of the solutions, presentations, and even the code that created them by visiting the Zoohackathon website. Some of the wining solutions included WildTrack, a text message based system that connects the world’s leading poaching incident response tool through a cloud-based information database to rangers and communities in low-tech areas; Safe Souvenirs, an app and website for travelers to learn about illegal products frequently sold in their travel destinations; and Lookout, a “digital ecosystem” that integrates educational material on wildlife products into travel arrangements systems.

“Oily Palms” was the Winning Team at the Seattle Woodland Zoo’s Zoohackathon. [Photo courtesy of Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo]

I headed out to San Diego to help introduce the problem statements to participants and see their work firsthand. I also got a chance to tour the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and see their conservation efforts. This was special for me because I used to take my own children to this park as they were growing up, and I am excited that the zoo is continuing to educate a new generation of young people about conservation. AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums spend on average $160 million on conservation initiatives annually. They have more than 2500 projects in over 100 countries. They also hosted 91 million participants in conservation education programs in 2015. As educators, researchers, and conservationists, zoos help protect animals across the world.

Presenting a solution at the 2016 Washington, D.C. Zoohackathon. [State Department Photo]
The Zoohackathon helped raise awareness of the challenges we face in combatting wildlife trafficking and also produced many practical technological solutions.

As we move forward in our efforts to end the loop on wildlife trafficking, we have new tools and partners to do it. I look forward to seeing how the solutions from this year help the global community stem wildlife trafficking and their impact in preserving the biodiversity of our planet.


This entry also appeared on at DipNote, the U.S. State Department’s Official Blog.