Insights from Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge Winners and Partners

In November 2017, USAID convened winners of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge as well as key partners and supporters to discuss successes, challenges and lessons, and to identify ways to continue exploring and elevating the role of science and technology in fighting wildlife crime. Below are some of the key takeaways from that conversation.

Impact and Scaling

For many, winning the Tech Challenge opened doors to additional funding and partnerships. “The prize money was a game changer for us,” said one winner. Overall, the 16 Tech Challenge winners leveraged an additional $2.9 million in funding and 57 additional partnerships.

In addition to much needed funding, winners earned recognition from peers and from within their larger institutions. One winner noted that winning the Tech Challenge increased their credibility within their university: “Our win with the Challenge was proof to the University that the investment was a good one.”

The staged structure of the Tech Challenge made it easy for organizations to apply. Organizations and universities more accustomed to cumbersome grant applications were able to apply with a short concept note, then supply more information at later stages. In several cases, the structure of the Tech Challenge helped winners better think through their ideas and refine them before they got to the final stages of the Challenge.

Working with Governments and Law Enforcement

Biologists have a lot to learn from the tech sector and from law enforcement officials. Direct connections with those potential users are critical to ensure that the tools and technologies developed are not only accurate, but also useful.

Elephant
The winners of USAID's Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge are harnessing the power of science and technology to protect elephants, rhinos and other species targeted by wildlife traffickers. These 16 innovators have new solutions to stop poaching, improve forensic evidence, detect transit routes and reduce demand that threatens wildlife and human communities. Lara Zanarini/Shutterstock

Technology brings new tools to fight wildlife crime, but in the absence of good governance, political will, and law enforcement capacity, it cannot stop the trafficking. Several winners noted that collaborating with governments was very challenging, as law enforcement agencies  were often unwilling to move forward in implementing or adopting technology. “Tech is helping us get one step closer [to stopping wildlife crime] but… if we do not have government and law enforcement, our solution would only be as good as an educational tool.” Another winner said, “Our main problem is not a lack of tech but that we depend on the authorities to follow through the legal process.” A third said, “Science has a tremendous role to play to outsmart criminal strategies with intelligence. But getting countries to act on their information is very hard.”

Certain law enforcement tools have not kept up with the volume of products that are traded internationally. In many countries, the manifest of cargo ships at port is provided on paper rather than digitally. In addition, company names in databases used at port have not been indexed - one company had 175 different names in the database. Sometimes data consolidation goes too far in the other direction: many species may be coded “live fish” without distinguishing the species, its conservation status or CITES appendix listing.

Many winners pointed out the importance of “going beyond tech” to assure good collaboration with the political and legal sector. Appropriate legal frameworks, a supportive enabling environment, human and financial capacity, and political will are co-requisites for technology solutions to succeed.

Working with Media

Working wisely with the media can be very beneficial for tech solutions to wildlife crime. Learning how to speak to the media about challenges and solutions in the sector helps conservationists to more clearly communicate the issues to a wide audience, which can help motivate governments and others to take positive action. Communicating the role of governments in addressing wildlife crime is an important way for governments to view conservationists as allies in their work.

What’s Next?

The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge closed in November 2017, but winners and key supporters can continue to share experiences and lessons in a new community hosted by WILDLABS.net. USAID is thankful to our partners National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and TRAFFIC, as well as implementing partner Integra for all of their work in making the Tech Challenge a success. We look forward to seeing even more successes and impact from all of the winners of the Tech Challenge!