Einzigartiger Planet

He saves forests using old mobile phones

Huge areas of tropical rainforest disappear every day due to illegal logging. This is why Topher White is installing electronic “ears” in the jungle. Made from recycled technology, these work as a networked warning system. He was awarded the Rolex Award for Enterprise for his project.
Published in September 2020icon-clockTime to read: 3min 43s

In terms of biodiversity, tropical rainforests are the best. They cover only about 12 percent of the global ice-free landmass, but more than half of the planet’s animal species live in the rainforest. This large diversity of life forms also makes the jungle a hearing experience. Insects, birds, monkeys and other animals take part in an uninterrupted acoustic competition.

With their chirping, twittering, screeching and singing, they create an overwhelming background noise. It is loud, very loud. And informative: “If you want to get the essence of the forest, then you must listen to it”, says Topher White. “With your eyes, you only see the trees in your immediate surroundings.” The technology expert thinks that, in comparison, the sounds of the jungle are richer and that they “contain more information”.

The world loses millions of hectares of rainforest through illegal logging
However, this diversity is threatened, mainly by illegal logging. Since the 1950s, nearly half of the world’s tropical rainforests have disappeared. According to estimates, overexploitation is responsible for 50 to 90 percent of the destruction of the rainforests.

In 2018 alone, 12 million hectares of rainforest were destroyed. Together, this amounts to an area that is larger than all German forests combined. The rainforests worldwide are shrinking so fast that by 2100, they might have disappeared.

That is why the American engineer Topher White (38) developed the “Forest Guardians”. This is a network of recycled mobile phones distributed among forests; the phones use microphones and solar modules to become “electronic ears”, which can identify sounds. This includes the sounds of chainsaws, which are used in illegal clearing.

“We are building partnerships with local tribes, NGOs, government agencies and community groups. We can alert them, so that they can immediately arrive on site and intervene to prevent illegal activities in real time”, says White. He was awarded an honorary prize by the Rolex Awards for Enterprise.

The award for exceptional men and women
The Rolex Awards for Enterprise are awarded approximately every two years, and are part of the “Perpetual Planet” campaign launched in 2019. The Swiss luxury watch manufacturer has, for more than four decades, supported ongoing or visionary new projects which serve the good of humanity and/or the planet.

The prize was launched in 1976, on the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof wristwatch. Just like the Rolex Oyster, the prize, as well as the winners of it, represent the values that Rolex has stood for since its establishment by Hans Wilsdorf in 1905: quality, ingenuity, determination, and especially entrepreneurship.

Since the prizes were first awarded, 150 men and woman have received awards. Prize winners get support for the continuation of their projects, such as access to the Rolex network.

The network listens to the rainforest
Topher White came up with the idea for his non-profit organisation “Rainforest Connection”, while in the jungle of the Indonesian island of Borneo. White visited a reservation for apes there. While on a scouting tour, he came across a man near a ranger station, who was busy felling a tree illegally. He was unnoticed, despite a chainsaw, because its noise was drowned out by the jungle’s natural background noise. Topher White had an idea.

White thinks that “the most amazing thing is that we use technology that doesn’t interest anyone”. “Rainforest Connection” collects discarded mobile phones to use in a network that acoustically monitors a total of 3,000 square kilometres of rainforest. These are equipped with high-sensitivity microphones. Software, which works in a similar way to an app used to recognise music, compares the sounds of the forest with the acoustic fingerprints of chainsaws, trucks, excavators, or the warning signals of specific animals.

The new devices, created from old technology, can “perceive all sounds, and with the help of artificial intelligence, we can filter out the noise from chainsaws, lumber trucks and road construction, or even the sounds of endangered species of birds and animals”, says White. Once installed high in the treetops, they detect sounds up to a kilometre away; the audio live streams are uploaded to the Cloud and analysed. Suspicious sounds are highlighted.

Rainforest Connection creates an acoustic nature archive
But the Forest Guardians also recognise animal sounds. Biologists and gamekeepers can therefore observe the activities of endangered animals, such as gorillas or orangutans, and act as soon as there is evidence of poachers. Such as when they hear animals scream in fear, or when it gets unusually quiet, because specific bird species fall silent as soon as humans are near. “We should also be able to track animals that make no sound as all”, said White. “Jaguars might not always make a sound, but the birds and other animals around them do.”

Additionally, the constantly collected data also create a valuable long-term acoustical archive of the voices of the rainforest. Over the years, it can be determined and documented whether and how the species composition of the jungle’s inhabitants changes in the long term. This can occur, for example, when pathways, roads, fields and pastures are created in the forest, and thus fragment it.

In the meantime, Rainforest Connection is used extensively. Whatever his system records, Topher White renders accessible. Researchers can therefore get current data about the tropical wildlife without expensive expeditions. For nature lovers, there is also the free app “RainforestCx”, with which one can, among other things, listen to the Brazilian jungle sounds live.

The destruction of the rainforest does not just disturb the habitat of many rare plants and animal species, but is also a major contributor to man-made climate change. This is because trees store CO₂ in leaves, branches, stems and roots. If a tree is felled, its leaves die and the stored CO₂ is released into the atmosphere.

The things that replace the trees, such as fields and meadows, are not as good at binding CO₂ as a forest. In this way, roughly 5 billion tonnes of CO₂ per year, which would normally have been absorbed and stored by the forests, have been released into the atmosphere between 2015 and 2017, as a result of the logging of tropical rainforests. This corresponds to roughly 8 percent of the world’s annual man-made CO₂ emissions.

This is not only important for ecological reasons. It is also about protecting local people and cultures.TOPHER WHITE, Rolex Associate Laureate

For Topher White, forests are “bulwarks of nature”. To preserve them, “creating corridors where the forest can be maintained, is not only important for ecological reasons”, says White, “it is also about protecting local people and cultures”.

Currently there are plans for the large-scale use of Topher White’s system in the north Brazilian state of Pará. The Tembé, an indigenous local tribe, want to work with White to protect 60,000 hectares of rainforest on their reservation from illegal logging, poaching and drug smuggling.

White is preparing more than 60 new projects making use of “Rainforest Connection”. The monitored rainforest area should double to include 6,000 square kilometres. Topher White calculates that the environmental effect should be equivalent to the decommissioning of 6 million cars; 400 million trees will be protected, and 30 million tonnes of CO₂ bound.


This article was created in partnership with Axel Springer Brand Studios and:

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