Topher WhiteElectronic ‘ears’ listen to world’s rainforests
Every second, more than one hectare of tropical forests is destroyed or drastically degraded, according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), threatening the survival of many species. Illegal logging is the biggest contributor to deforestation, which in turn contributes to climate change. With the world’s rainforests now shrinking so fast that they may be gone by 2100, the need for ways to prevent illegal logging and monitor forest wildlife is urgent.
American technologist Topher White has come up with one possible answer: using mobile phones to create a network of forest “ears” that can report illegal activity as well as live-stream the sounds of wildlife in remote regions such as the Amazon, Central America and Asia.
White’s NGO, Rainforest Connection (RFCx) has built the hardware and software that are able to cheaply and effectively protect rainforests from illegal logging and poaching around the world, with RFCx technology deployed in 9 countries, 5 continents and protecting nearly 3,000 square kilometres of rainforest.
The network of repurposed mobile phones provides partners with instant warning of any illicit activity detected, its location and type. “We form partnerships with local tribes, NGOs, government agencies and community groups, and we can send alerts to them so they can actually show up and stop the illegal activity in real time, on the ground,” says White.
The phones, which have purpose-built solar chargers, can be located in vulnerable areas of forest, such as near roads and tracks, to form a network of “Forest Guardian” listening devices. Audio streams from the Guardians are uploaded in real time to the cloud where artificial intelligence models analyse the audio and relay detection of unusual activities, such as the use of chainsaws and vehicles, back to the rangers on the ground.
The same technology is also being used to monitor the sounds of rare or important species of birds and animals, providing scientists with a way to study the health of wildlife populations in a given area, adding momentum to conservation. The sounds are live-streamed, creating a vast digital library that gives scientists raw acoustic data. “We should be able to detect animals that don’t even make sounds. Jaguars might not always be vocalizing, but birds and other animals around them are,” he says.
“One of the most amazing things is that we’re using old technology, the stuff no one’s excited about, to do really cutting-edge science and conservation around the world,” White explains. “We take an old cell phone – the ones everyone throws away – and we can put it high up in the trees of the rainforest. It can listen to all the sounds and, using artificial intelligence, we can pick out the noise of chainsaws, logging trucks, road building – or even of endangered species of birds or animals.”
Deforestation is rampant worldwide and, by releasing soil carbon, is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, White says. The main obstacle to controlling it has been a lack of surveillance in very remote areas of forest, to provide timely warning to communities or law enforcement agencies.
White has extensively tested his Forest Guardian technology with local communities in Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Romania, South Africa, Belize, Philippines, the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and Peru. “A really important element of what we do is work with local people, the ones who are protecting these areas, as they can have the biggest impact in fighting climate change,” he adds.
“Rainforest Connection technology has surpassed its proof-of-concept phase and has moved into expansion with over 60 new projects in the pipeline. RFCx expects to have an impact on 6,000 square kilometres of threatened ecosystems and produce 450 years' worth of audio over the next 24 months. Impact in conservation and research is expected to triple. The amount of land protected will be the equivalent of taking 6 million cars off the road, 400 million trees protected, and 30 million tonnes of CO2 sequestered.”
The vision for Rainforest Connection moving forward is to move from just fighting illegal logging and poaching to enabling an impactful protection of all ecosystems, both forest and marine. The RFCx platform will leverage shared data to enable more sophisticated analytics and machine learning capabilities, which connects research to conservation through ecosystem monitoring. RFCx aspires to be the tool that conservation organizations, foundations, and donors can use to measure the impact of conservation efforts.
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