On a hot day this spring, Topher White hiked into the Rio Canandé Reserve in Ecuador, used a slingshot-like device to fling a rope high up into a tree, and started climbing more than 100 feet up into the canopy. When he neared the top, he installed a small box holding an old cellphone and a set of custom solar panels. The goal: to use the phone’s microphone to listen for the sounds of illegal logging.
It’s one of the most recent installations for Rainforest Connection, the nonprofit tech startup that White founded in 2013 and that recently got financial support through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise. “The underlying thesis of this is that there are people on the ground who would stop illegal logging if they had the support to do it, if they knew where it was, and if they could do it in a safer way,” he says.
While other monitoring also happens—software can analyze satellite images to detect deforestation, for example—it usually comes too late, after trees have already been cut down and hauled away. Illegal logging now happens at a vast scale; tropical deforestation now emits more CO2 emissions than the entire European Union.
White was inspired to start the nonprofit after a 2011 trip to a rain forest preserve in Borneo. Rangers on staff protected the area, but at one point on the trip, White stumbled on someone sawing down a tree only a few hundred meters from a ranger station. The natural sounds of the animals in the forest drowned out the chainsaw. He realized that technology could help create a more robust monitoring system. After rigging up a prototype back in the United States, he returned to Indonesia and installed the first system, which used software to detect the sound of a chainsaw and then send an alert to a ranger’s phone. The very next day, it detected illegal logging.
The process works by continually streaming audio from the forest to the cloud; a special array of solar panels is designed to work even in the shade of the trees and keep the phone powered. In some areas with poor mobile service, antennas also help make the system function. Over time, the team has tweaked its software to improve the way that the phones power up and send data. The system also now detects new types of sounds.
“Over the past few years, we started implementing artificial intelligence, which is kind of the status quo in trying to pick out audio data, and not only detecting chainsaws, but trucks, gunshots, different types of vehicles, boats, things like that, that indicate explicit human activity,” White says. They also realized the broader potential for the data to be used not just to detect threats but to study the ecosystem. Scientists can study specific species. Anyone who’s interested can download an app and listen to the sound of one of the forests in real time, something that the nonprofit hopes can lead to more interest in conservation.
As the project expanded beyond the first installation to places like northern Brazil, where the indigenous Tembé people struggle to protect their forests from illegal logging, poaching, and drug smuggling operations, the nonprofit realized that each location faced different challenges. Like with most technology, success didn’t depend on the tech alone but how people used it. People on the ground might not always want to respond to an alert because of the threat of kidnapping or violence from loggers, or because a volunteer can’t afford to leave their job when they get the alert, or because it wasn’t clear what would happen when they detained the illegal loggers.
A group of lawyers in southern Peru pioneered one solution that worked. “The lawyers themselves would get the call and would dispatch the local defenders, as they call them, out to catch the loggers,” he says. “At the exact same time as doing that, they would file a case.” That triggered a local law that meant that police had to respond—and gave the “defenders” the confidence that they would only have to detain loggers for a few hours. (The app also records photographic and audio evidence onto the blockchain so it can be used in later court cases if needed.)
Rainforest Connection looks for this type of successful example to share with partners in other locations. People working on the ground can also use the app to show funders how much logging is happening and make the case that they need more support to be able to stop it. In Indonesia, one group is deliberately waiting to respond as they gather evidence and build up partnerships.
As we spoke, White had just gotten a message from the Tembé, who reported that they’d gotten an alert and apprehended illegal loggers a few hours earlier. The system was working. It continues to expand; the nonprofit now has installed its technology, called forest “guardians,” on 150 trees in 10 countries.
Each installation involves working with local partners to find the best place to put the technology, getting to that location—sometimes an eight-mile hike—and climbing as high as 150 feet into the air to screw the equipment to a tree. At the moment, Rainforest Connection does the installations, and then follows up with in-depth trainings for rangers.
The next step, White says, is to see if the system can work without the nonprofit’s direct involvement. “Is this a solution that can scale and make a huge difference, from a conservation standpoint, without us, standing alongside the partners, because it’s technology that can run on its own? That’s what we have to prove over the next year or two.”