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Topher White

Electronic ‘ears’ listen to world’s rainforests

Technologist Topher White is giving scientists and conservationists a unique view of wildlife in the world’s rainforests – through an alert system he originally developed to detect illegal logging using old mobile phones.

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“We’re using old technology – the stuff no one’s excited about – to do really cutting-edge science and conservation around the globe,” says White.

Equipped with solar rechargers, the repurposed phones listen to all the sounds of the forest. Through artificial intelligence, White’s NGO Rainforest Connection, can pick out chainsaws, logging trucks and road building, and alert forest managers and indigenous communities in time to intervene.

They can listen to all the sounds and we can pick out using artificial intelligence, the sounds of chain saws, or really any species.

Topher White

The same technology is being used to monitor the sounds 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,” says White.

The 37 year-old American has extensively tested his “forest guardian” technology in the jungles of Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru and Sumatra, and plans to scale up its protection to 60,000 hectares of rainforest in the Tembé Indigenous Reserve, Pará, Brazil, and on the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica.

“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.”