Saving wild animals at Zoohackathon

Endangered birds may get some needed protection, thanks to “chatbot” — a software program that “converses” with wildlife enthusiasts to help gather important information needed to track and protect threatened birds.

The idea for chatbot came during the second annual Zoohackathon, co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, which brings together computer coders, designers and conservationists from around the world to develop apps and other high-tech tools to combat wildlife trafficking.

Zoohackathons bring high-tech prowess to a worldwide problem. Wildlife trafficking — the poaching, illegal transit, trade and sale of wildlife — is the world’s fourth-largest transnational crime, valued at as much as $23 billion annually.

Two men working at computers (State Dept.)
Teams work to develop apps at the second Zoohackathon at the San Diego Zoo. (State Dept.)

A team called the Local Rangers, with the chatbot idea, edged out other competitors September 22–24 at the San Diego Zoo. Basically, residents would send a text message with sightings of endangered birds, and the chatbot would ask simple questions about behavior and nesting, which would be added to other reports to help complete a big picture of population health.

In addition to the chatbot, the Local Rangers created an incentive structure that rewards people for contributing information to the app and dissuades them from poaching birds. The team envisions researchers and institutions paying citizen scientists for information about bird sightings.

The Local Rangers will face off against the winning teams selected from Zoohackathon events in New Delhi and London October 6–8. A final winner will be named in November.

During breaks in the Zoohackathon, teams learned about animal behavior from zookeepers and conservation scientists. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which co-sponsors the Zoohackathon, spends millions of dollars on saving endangered species.

Papers on desk depicting smartphones (State Dept.)
Teams sometimes use old-fashioned paper to come up with high-tech solutions at a Zoohackathon. (State Dept.)
Graphic showing trafficked animals and the products they are killed for (State Dept./Julia Maruszewski; Images © AP Images, Shutterstock)
(State Dept./Julia Maruszewski; Images © AP Images, Shutterstock)