Listen for the trees
Topher White always had a fondness for gibbons, the tree-dwelling ape found throughout the rainforests of Asia. As a kid, he used to visit them at the San Francisco Zoo. “You could hear them even before you went inside,” which he and his brother found amazing, he said. “And if you go and watch them, they just move so gracefully.”
At age 26, White finally got a chance to see his favorite primate in the wild. A trained physicist, he was working at a nuclear fusion lab in France at the time. But one day in 2011 he discovered an opportunity to volunteer at a gibbon sanctuary in Indonesia and decided to go. It was there that he learned about the problems facing their natural habitat.
Indonesia is home to some of the world’s largest and most ancient rainforests. These ecosystems, however, face threats. From 2000 to 2012, endangered gibbon species in Sumatra and neighboring islands lost 54 percent of their habitat primarily due to illegal logging and fires set to make way for agriculture.
While working directly with the apes being rehabilitated at the gibbon reserve, White was moved to find better ways to help them. He quickly spotted a significant challenge in the way the organization was operating. “The team was actually spending a lot of their resources trying to protect the outskirts of their pretty small reserve. You know, go off, walk in the forest to find loggers,” he said.
The strategy was inefficient. There is simply too much vulnerable rainforest to monitor on foot. So White had an audacious idea one that would not only help protect rainforest ecosystems all around the world, but also eventually earn him a coveted Rolex Award for Enterprise. What if, he mused, you could use technology to listen for the tell-tale sounds of loggers from a distance, and maybe even catch them before they have a chance to cut down a single tree?
The team was actually spending a lot of their resources trying to protect the outskirts of their pretty small reserve go off, walk in the forest to find loggers.
Using tech to protect
The story is similar in Indonesia. Willie Smits is a Dutch conservationist and animal rights activist who has worked on these issues in the archipelago nation for over four decades. He believes the problem boils down to money. “There are a huge number of cases where oil palm plantations have supported illegal logging in order to expand their land area, seemingly to ‘save’ the degraded areas and create jobs and income,” he said. “But that is mostly for the rich few.”
There are a huge number of cases where oil palm plantations have supported illegal logging in order to expand their land area, seemingly to ‘save’ the degraded areas and create jobs and income. But that is mostly for the rich few.
These are some of the endemic issues White was up against in his quest to save the gibbons. Back in France, he began exploring ways to engineer the listening device he had in mind. He had programming experience, so developing a custom piece of software wasn’t an issue. The challenge was finding a solution that could work in the context of remote rainforests. He knew the outer perimeters of the gibbon environments under threat the buffer zones had surprisingly good cellular network service. After considerable trial and error, he eventually came up with the perfect solution: they could use mobile phones as recorders.
Returning to Indonesia to test his idea, he enlisted the help of local conservationists to hang used cell phones from trees, creating a network of listening devices spread throughout the forest. He’d designed the software so that if it detected the distinctive blare of chainsaws it would send an immediate notification via email. After installing the test array, White and his comrades only had to wait an hour or two. Soon, White received an alert on his phone. Chainsaws had been detected. His invention worked.
It’s a lack of transparency in the forest that allows these places to be destroyed. If people are paying attention, it ends up being a protective force.
That was in 2013. Since then, White’s creative intervention has expanded into a nonprofit organization called Rainforest Connection. The group has installed cellular listening stations in tree canopies across Sumatra, Cameroon, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. These efforts were recently given a significant boost when he was named one of five Associate Laureate winners of the 2019 Rolex Awards.
For White, the award casts a vital spotlight on this work. “It’s a lack of transparency in the forest that allows these places to be destroyed. If people are paying attention, it ends up being a protective force.”
Expanding the network
He believes that apart from thwarting illegal activities locally, his technology is a way of bringing worldwide awareness to the problem. It was his own deep concern for the plight of the gibbons that compelled him to find a way to do something about it. He hopes the intimacy of people listening, through their headphones, to the living sounds of the rainforest in real time will help to instill a similar bond.
“The overall goal of all this is to link anybody in the world to what is happening in the forest in a way that becomes personal and emotional,” said White. “Can we get the world to understand that this is a resource that we can’t lose? Not by going there, which is not a sustainable model, but by being able to be connected to it.”
The Laureate Questionnaire
For over four decades, Rolex has supported the ingenuity of activists, scientists and community leaders through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. This effort got a boost in 2019 with the launch of Perpetual Planet, an initiative that encompasses the company’s wide-ranging interventions to support research and advocacy on environmental issues. For Rolex laureates like White, the award can amplify vital, but often under-recognized efforts to protect the planet.
How has the recognition helped broaden your efforts?
“The technology is inherently scalable, so we can really expand. We have dozens of projects and more than a thousand square miles sort of under protection at this moment, but we want to do more. Rolex has expressed a strong desire to help us grow.”
You are joining a thriving network of past and present Rolex Award winners. What has it meant to be a part of that community?
“There were five laureates and then five associate laureates out of this class of 10 finalists. We are all super tight. It’s kind of crazy the extent to which we chat with each other almost every day.”
Are there any new initiatives Rolex’s support will help you pursue?
“We’re currently building what we call a bioacoustics platform, basically a global database of sounds, in collaboration with some really great partners, including Rolex. The idea is that it could help us understand more about animal interactions, a lot of which happen sonically.”
These stories highlight Rolex's commitment to support research on environmental issues and join forces with individuals and organizations aiming to find solutions to protect the environment. This content was produced independently from The Washington Post Newsroom.
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From 2000 to 2012, endangered gibbon species in Sumatra and neighboring islands lost 54% of their habitat.