The Conservation Project International today opens applications for Vaquita Hacks (12-13 December), the world’s first virtual hackathon dedicated to finding innovative technological and artificial intelligence solutions to save the vaquita from extinction.

Delivered in partnership with global experts from Earth League International, Earth Hacks and the Countering Wildlife Trafficking Institute, Vaquita Hacks is open to students and early career conservationists worldwide.

Global technology giant Microsoft, a key sponsor of Vaquita Hacks, will award $20,000 worth of prizes to the most outstanding hackathon solutions.

The vaquita, a small porpoise found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California, is the world’s rarest marine mammal. Vaquitas are regularly caught and drown in nets meant for totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is a delicacy in Asia. Although totoaba fishing has been outlawed since 1975, it remains a lucrative target for Mexican cartels. The vaquita population has fallen from more than 200 individuals in 2008 to less than ten today. Without urgent intervention, the species will go extinct in 2021.

Vaquita Hacks participants will work across three different challenge areas – wildlife crime law, science and criminal analytics and public engagement and civic action – to tackle the specific political and environmental issues faced by the vaquita. The solutions developed by the students in the hackathon will have a direct impact on international conservation efforts, both by assisting Earth League International’s investigatory work in disrupting the illicit totoaba supply chain and by informing future wildlife trafficking projects around the world.

Harry Wright, director and co-founder of The Conservation Project International, said:  

“I am delighted to be working with Earth Hacks, Earth League International and the Countering Wildlife Trafficking Institute to develop Vaquita Hacks, the first-ever international virtual hackathon dedicated to finding innovative solutions to save the vaquita from extinction.  

 “As well as having a real-world impact on the global fight to save the vaquita, Vaquita Hacks will provide valuable professional experience and networking opportunities for our participants. While many young people are passionate about conserving our planet, it can be difficult to find a job in this competitive market. Through projects such as Vaquita Hacks 2020, The Conservation Project International aims to empower the next generation of conservationists to become future leaders in the field. 

 “Time is rapidly running out for many of our planet’s most amazing creatures, including the vaquita. By bringing together new ideas and innovations through initiatives such as Vaquita Hacks, I am hopeful that we can turn the corner and reverse the callous destruction to our natural world.”  

Sanjana Paul, executive director of Earth Hacks, said:  

Up until now, hackathons have been a largely untapped model of innovation in the conservation space for species-specific issues. While complex problems at the intersection of human and animal rights, environmental and species conservation, criminology and many other fields can’t be solved in a weekend, producing working solutions to specific, smaller facets is feasible.  

 “We at Earth Hacks consider ourselves very lucky to be part of the world’s first hackathon focused on vaquita conservation, and to able to work with caring, motivated people at Earth League International, the Countering Wildlife Trafficking Institute and all our partners on this effort.  

 “We hope that the lessons learned and projects developed at this hackathon are applicable for future conservation efforts, and that the innovative format of this initiative exposes more people outside the field to conservation issues.” 

Dr. Odean Serrano, executive director of the Countering Wildlife Trafficking Institute, said: 

 “The power of advanced geospatial analytics provides flexible solutions that address evolving wildlife trafficking and criminal network complexities by integrating multiple insights visualised within a common operating picture, benefitting governments, law enforcement and NGO missions.” 

Dan Morris, Program Director, Microsoft AI for Earth said:  

 “All over the world, scarce conservation resources are being stretched thin by the need to sift through enormous volumes of data, especially images. Conservation biologists review millions of images from camera traps to estimate wildlife populations, anti-poaching teams screen thousands of images from connected cameras to find the small handful that contain threats, and border officials screen thousands of documents, scans, and images to find suspicious shipments.  We see a huge opportunity for AI to accelerate this kind of data review, by making sure that conservation practitioners only have to review the data that’s *relevant*, letting them spend more time on conservation science, planning, and enforcement, and less time on tedious data review.” 

To apply for a place at Vaquita Hacks or for further information about The Conservation Project International, visit

Vaquita; photo credit Paula Olson