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The State Department is in the middle of an annual month-long program to generate ideas on how to stop wildlife trafficking. It sponsors Zoohackathon sessions on three continents. To learn more about what they are and how they work, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Allie Swanson of the Office of International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and the Director of the Zoohackathon program, Tory Peabody.
Tom Temin: Well, let’s start with the big picture here: What is the Zoohackathon?
Alexandra “Allie” Swanson: The Zoohackathon is therefore a global competition that brings together university students and coders to develop innovative ideas and solutions to fight wildlife trafficking. This program raises awareness of global wildlife trafficking issues and inspires the next generation of conservation-minded coders. It also aims to build partnerships between government, the private sector and intergovernmental stakeholders. Finally, it strengthens international cooperation in the global fight against wildlife trafficking.
Tom Temin: Well make the connection for me between software coding and stopping horrible people with spears and guns and helicopters shooting at animals.
Alexandra “Allie” Swanson: So, as wildlife traffickers become more and more sophisticated in the way they seek poaching, or the capture and treatment of animals, we must become more and more sophisticated in our ability to combat them. So what the Zoohackathon does is generate innovative ideas on how to tackle wildlife trafficking at all stages, from poachers in the field, to poaching prevention, to l help to detect and prevent trafficking in wildlife. But also to reduce demand, because when demand stops, the killing stops. And so what the Zoohackathon does is it brings young minds together, right? They are university students, sometimes even high school students, but above all professionals at the beginning of their careers to generate innovative ideas, and innovative solutions to fight against the trafficking of wildlife. These don’t need to be super high tech, sometimes low tech is better, especially in remote places. But there are new ways of thinking about how we can solve this problem. And so with Zoohackathon, we are generating these ideas and looking for ways to support their further development into full-fledged technology solutions. But one of the biggest outcomes of this event is the fact that we bring people together, most of whom have never heard of wildlife trafficking, and raise awareness and build this international cooperation and generate the next generation of coders. concerned with conservation.
Tom Temin: Yes. So, can you give us an example of an idea that a previous hackathon had that is in practice?
Alexandra “Allie” Swanson: Sure. So there are a lot of ideas that have been generated. For example, we have a Chrome plugin, there is something called Conscious Consumer that a team has developed to help alert potential buyers you know of products that their products might be problematic or use traffic wildlife products. . There’s also a tool that a team from Colombia generated, an idea that would help identify traffic timber, sort of alerting authorities to irregularities between what you know they were actually carrying and what they were carrying. claimed to carry. Now, many of these ideas are still on the hunt for their ultimate homes. But the teams of young people who had these ideas continue their professional development in software and engineering. And we continue to look for NGO partners who are interested in advancing these ideas.
Tom Temin: And these hackathons, there are several around the world. They don’t just happen at [former] Hotel Jurys at DuPont Circle here. You have people on three continents. Talk about the international aspect, Tory?
Victoria “Tory” Peabody: Yes, so we have eight events this year, they affect all regions of the world except Europe. We sort of organize in-person events. And then we have two events which are all virtual taking place in all regions. So basically what we wanted to do is take these new audiences from these college students and coders who really don’t know much about wildlife trafficking. And throughout the program, they basically learn these challenges. And then we throw in some fun stuff like presentations from wildlife experts or experts from tech organizations, there are quizzes, there are really awesome prizes. So it’s a pretty intense weekend. But it’s a lot of fun, and everyone is really excited after the event is over.
Tom Temin: We chat with Tory Peabody, she is the Zoohackathon Program Manager and with Dr Allie Swanson she is the Foreign Affairs Officer in the Office of Environmental and International Scientific Affairs, both at the State Department. And there is a diplomatic wrinkle here as things are unfolding in foreign countries, in the Congo and so on, and in countries in Southeast Asia. Still, it’s the United States Department of State that meets, so there must be a hosting function going on from those countries so you don’t feel like intruders, in an eternal problem of ‘another country.
Alexandra “Allie” Swanson: Yeah, absolutely. Thus, the countries that host these Zoohackathons are often very receptive to joint efforts to combat wildlife trafficking. And sometimes we have whose government participates in our events. This was especially true when we had in-person events. But sometimes, embassies that run the type of local Zoohackathon programs engage with government partners to help identify the issues that are most pressing locally and that resonate most with local communities. I think this was true at the event in Colombia a few years ago, didn’t it, the embassy engaged with the host government to identify what are the biggest issues that we can help tackle? jointly solve? So I think one of the main outcomes of these Zoohackathon events is also that they strengthen this international cooperation because no one can fight wildlife trafficking alone. It’s an international effort, it’s a global problem. And thanks to the Zoohackathon, we are able to build this international cooperation and work together on these issues.
Victoria “Tory” Peabody: And then also just to intervene, sometimes representatives of local governments will participate in the jury, as participants throughout the event will create an idea for a solution. And then at the end of the event, they’re supposed to present their idea for a solution to a panel of judges. So this is also another really interesting opportunity for local governments to participate. And then they can kind of provide input on the ideas.
Tom Temin: Not all of the governments involved here have, say, exactly the same level of integrity as the US government. Animal trafficking can be an economic driver in some of these countries. You should therefore know that the government is not in cahoots with the traffickers. And this is not an unknown phenomenon in the world. So how do you step on that one, and also the people who participate in it might fall in the crosshairs of traffickers, who are often violent people?
Alexandra “Allie” Swanson:Thus, our experiences with Zoohackathon have always been a very cooperative and positive experience with our host governments. I believe that, as we know, through the process of identifying countries of concern under the Wildlife Trafficking Elimination, Neutralization and Disruption (NDT) Act, complicity and engagement government in and profiting from wildlife trafficking is a real concern that the United States seeks to address through various channels. We have the NDT law in which we call the countries of concern, and we also have these inadmissibility programs in which we identify known traffickers to send a strong signal that they are not welcome in the United States. But we also have bilateral and regional cooperation and build these positive cooperation processes. And this kind of cooperation story is really important to achieve a positive result. And with the Zoohackathon, the way people participate in the Zoohackathon has not raised fears of retaliation. Violence against conservationists is a very real thing, and it’s something that the State Department recognizes in its processes to address it and recognize that. But because with Zoohackathon we are engaging in new ideas, and none of these participants like to sneak in or call criminals, it has remained a very positive avenue for cooperation. And I think that’s sort of where its strength lies in this ability to cooperate and be positive about this common goal.
Tom Temin: Okay, and just out of curiosity, what are the main animals that are trafficked in some countries – Bolivia, Congo, Gabon, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Vietnam – what species are we most concerned about?
Alexandra “Allie” Swanson: Overall, these are the pangolins. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammals in the world, especially for their scales, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. In the countries you mentioned, the problem is very localized. So in Latin America, overall, the trade in live birds is a huge problem as well as the trade in live reptiles. There is a lot of convergence or laundering of captured wild animals, animals trafficked through “legal captive trade”, isn’t there. So and this can make it very difficult to discern what is legal and what is not. The African elephant for its ivory is a sort of long-recognized classic emblem in the fight against wildlife trafficking. I think cheetahs are another growing example, especially in the Middle East for the pet trade. It varies considerably.
Tom Temin: Well, we are glad you are at work. Dr Allie Swanson is Foreign Affairs Officer in the Office of International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the Department of State. And Tory Peabody is responsible for the Zoohackathon program. Thanks a lot you two.