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Analysing the sounds of the rainforest

Topher White uses discarded mobile phones to create warning systems that detect illegal activity in tropical rainforests.

By Eva Van Den Berg
Published in September 2020Time to read: 3min 54s

His successful approach won him his nomination as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2015, followed in 2019 by a Rolex Award for Enterprise, an accolade that since 1976 has been conferred by the Swiss watchmaker for projects designed to make the world a better place. American engineer and physicist Topher White is a great admirer of technology. Nevertheless he likes to say that his invention is far from being a high-tech concept, since it involves nothing more than bringing together components that already existed for a ground-breaking purpose: equipping the tropical rainforests with “ears” so that we can detect extremely harmful criminal activity such as poaching and illegal logging.

The idea of creating “electronic ears” to help preserve the rainforest came to him in 2011, when White was travelling as a tourist in Borneo, specifically in a gibbon reserve. “We could hear the cries of the gibbons and of many other birds and animals, such as hornbills and cicadas. There was a constant cacophony of sounds. In this reserve there were three security guards whose job was to protect the area from illegal logging. Despite that, we went out for a walk one day and came across somebody who had just cut a tree down only a few hundred metres from the reserve. The thing was that nobody had even heard him! Rainforests are very, very noisy places,” says White.

The American engineer and physicist Topher White was an Associate Laureate of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2019.

According to UN figures, 90% of logging that takes place in tropical rainforests is illegal. Deforestation, which is responsible for 17% of total greenhouse gas emissions, is endangering a biodiversity that is today facing its biggest threat since the wave of massive extinctions during the Cretaceous period, which led to the disappearance of the dinosaurs and countless other species some 66 million years ago. White started to wonder what could be done to tackle a problem with such dramatic consequences that also threaten the future of the indigenous peoples inhabiting these regions. Borneo turned out to be the “inspiration” that set him thinking along these lines, since this Indonesian island has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, with almost 300,000 square kilometres of deforested, burnt or damaged territory over the last century, representing a portion of the planet larger than the entire United Kingdom.

How can we put a stop to illegal logging? It would have been tempting to come up with a high-technology solution, but in the Rainforest a simple and practical response is required. We could see that we already had all we needed: people and network coverage.

It was then that White’s instincts as an inventor were set to work. One of the things he was sure about right from the start was that the question required a simple, practical approach. He resolved that there would be “no absurd high-tech solutions”. “I was really surprised to discover that there was good network coverage right in the heart of the rainforest. We were in the middle of nowhere, yet we could communicate by mobile phone. We had no electricity and we were hundreds of kilometres from the nearest road, but there was network signal,” he recalls. Then came the idea: how about recycling old mobile phones to set up a system for monitoring the forest so as to capture and analyse all the sounds it produces? “I rejected any idea of an image-based system because in such a dense environment it would be almost impossible to operate,” he adds.

The audio transmissions emitted by these “forest guardian” devices are received at the Rainforest Connection operational centre and are uploaded onto the Cloud in real time.

The project started to take shape, and in 2014 he founded the non-governmental organisation Rainforest Connection, which set about designing and launching devices fitted with a software program called The Guardian, which uses the processors from recycled mobile phones sent to them by people from all over the world. The device is enclosed together with an ultra-sensitive microphone in a watertight box fitted with four directional antennas and solar panels that enable it to remain operational 24 hours a day. These “electronic ears” are placed in the forest canopy (the layer of vegetation at a height of over 30 metres that is invisible from the ground), and store all the sounds of the forest produced within a radius of three kilometres. Thanks to models based on machine learning and artificial intelligence, they are capable of distinguishing between animal noises and those made by chainsaws or vehicle engines. If the last two elements are detected, the telephone will use an application to send an alert message to the mobile phones of the forest rangers, who will then decide what action to take.

“To carry out the first trials we returned to Indonesia, to another nature reserve threatened by illegal logging. On the second day after installing the equipment we received the first alert in real time. It was the sound of lumberjacks using chainsaws. We went to arrest them – I was very nervous. The fact is that we caught them in the act and they were extremely surprised. As far as we know, they have never returned to the location concerned.” After the success of their trials, the news spread and numerous people started to contact him from different locations all over the world, keen to place the sensors in their gloriously biodiverse but sadly threatened forests.

In collaboration with local communities in each territory, Topher White has already extensively tested his technology in Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Romania, South Africa, Belize, the Philippines, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and in Peru. “The work we do with the local population is very important, since they are the ones who protect these regions and who play an essential role in the fight against deforestation and climate change.”

In an Ecuadorian oil-palm plantation, White accompanies a ranger towards the tree at the top of which they plan to install the device, which may involve a long trek. Although the rangers learn to carry out the maintenance of the devices, Rainforest Connection sends out the updated versions of the software remotely, which enables them to be used for up to three years without anybody needing to touch them.

To date, his invention already guarantees the protection of nearly 3,000 square kilometres of rainforest, although he hopes to double the area covered by these forest guardians in the coming years. “We aim to be the tool used by the conservation organisations, foundations and donors to measure the impact of their conservation initiatives.” In addition to its role of preventing environmental crimes, Rainforest Connection (whose name is often abbreviated to RFCx) also aspires to act as a bio-acoustic platform that can record, in the words of this ingenious lover of technology, “every bird’s song, every insect’s chirp, every rustling of leaves and every drop of rain. We are creating a digital library that can give scientists instant access to immense treasures of acoustic data without the need to process compilations in the tropical forests of the entire planet.” The aim is to facilitate the use of shared data that will allow for more sophisticated analyses and machine learning capabilities so as to link research and conservation through the monitoring of ecosystems. “With this technology we can also monitor the sounds of major animal species, which helps scientists to study the health of the populations in a particular region or to improve the conservation effort,” explains White. “We could even detect the presence of animals that don’t even emit any sound. Jaguars, for example, do not always produce any sound at all, but the birds and other animals around them certainly do.”

There is no doubt that White and his team have achieved a major success. Using existing technology and old disused telephones he has succeeded in setting up a platform which serves the cause of science and cutting-edge conservation in every corner of our planet. In the words of the publicist David Ogilvy: the best ideas usually start with something simple.

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