Discarded Cell Phones to Help Fight Rainforest Poachers, Loggers in Real-Time

By Rhett A. Butler, Mongabay.com
June 29, 2014 Updated: June 29, 2014

A technology that uses discarded mobile phones to create a real-time alert system against logging and poaching will soon be deployed in the endangered rainforests of Central Africa. 

Rainforest Connection (RFCx), a San Francisco-based non-profit startup, is partnering with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to install its real-time anti-deforestation technology at sites in Cameroon. 30 RFCx devices — recycled from old Android handsets — will monitor 10,000 hectares or nearly 40 square miles of rainforest, listening for audio signals associated with logging and poaching. When the whir of a chainsaw, a gunshot, or the sound of a logging truck is detected, the system automatically alerts local authorities who can take action as the environmental crime is being committed. 

Rainforest Connection’s system is powered by a network of Android smartphones, each of which is driven by an array of solar panels that are designed for low-light conditions of the rainforest canopy. The units are durable to ensure they can survive hot and humid conditions for years. That durability, combined with the low cost of the units and the increasing ubiquity of mobile networks, means that the potential of the system is vast, according to Rainforest Connection founder Topher White. 

“It’s clear that real-time awareness and intervention is a major missing piece in protecting the world’s last remaining rainforests,” said White in a statement. “By using old smartphones and existing telecommunications infrastructure, we have built a system that should scale quickly enough to make an impact.” 

Rainforest Connection field-tested the system last year in Indonesia’s West Sumatra. While that project was intended only to probe the feasibility of the system, it immediately served its broader purpose, catching illegal loggers in the act two weeks after it was installed. White says the loggers haven’t returned in the year since. 

“We have shown (in this one case) that knowledge of the system has deterred logging activity in the protected area,” he told Mongabay.com. 

In Cameroon, the system will be listening for a number of sounds, including off-hours movement of trucks, which could indicate timber smuggling. 

“To be blunt,” said White, “providing an accounting for corruption within the concession—including illegal logging by those who work there—is amongst the primary goals of the pilot.” 

The sensors will also try to pick up elephants as they move through the forest. 

ZSL, which operates projects across the tropics, says it excited about the prospect of real-time monitoring. 

“We think this could be a critical new tool for protecting large areas of rainforest,” Chris Ransom, Programme Manager for ZSL. “We’re excited to deploy it this year in collaboration with our local partners in Africa.” 

Rainforest Connection is hoping to scale the platform well beyond Cameroon and West Sumatra. Coinciding with the announcement of the ZSL partnership, Rainforest Connection launched a $100,000 KickStarter campaign that would support deployment in African and South American rainforests. Beyond knowing that they are helping protect endangered forests and animals, supporters can receive various rewards, including instructions on how to build their own RFCx device. 

The potential payback of the system is immense. White estimates that RFCx device offers the greenhouse gas emissions-equivalent to taking 3,000 cars off the road for a year. 

Courtesy of Rainforest Connection

“Each RFCx device ‘protects’ 300 hectares,” he explained. “Emissions from logging are 50 tons of carbon dioxide per hectare, translating to 15,000 tons per device.” 

Rainforest Connection’s tool is part of an emerging suite of monitoring technologies that are being applied to conservation. For example, authorities in places like Brazil are putting motion sensors on trees, while researchers globally are using camera traps and satellite imagery for a wide range of applications. Scientists are even outfitting hobbyist model airplanes outfitted with sensors and cameras to track wildlife, find poachers, and detect deforestation and fires. 

White says he hopes to extend Rainforest Connection’s capabilities leveraging some of these technologies. 

“We are considering extending our range with small long-distance fixed-wing drones, which can fly-by several times per day and pick up data in bulk, re-transmitting it when they come within GSM range,” he said. 

White discussed his efforts and more in a June 2014 interview with Mongabay.com. 

 

An Interview With Topher White

Topher White
Topher White (Courtesy of Topher White)

Mongabay.com: What led you to start Rainforest Connection? 

Topher White: Rainforest Connection started because of a single event, in 2011, when I first witnessed illegal logging in Indonesian Borneo. I had travelled to Borneo as an eco-tourist to volunteer with a local NGO, Kalaweit, which is well-known for their work in rehabilitating formerly captive gibbons. Kalaweit’s mission includes the protection of a 40000 hectare reserve bordering upon their primary site, and they had invested significantly in helping to hire rangers to guard it. One day, our group was taken on a guided walking tour in the reserve, and within 5 minutes walk from the rangers’ HQ, we came upon a group of illegal loggers. They fled upon our arrival, but the problem was evident: even within relatively short distances, rangers had no real-time awareness of destructive activity in their reserve. While the limitations of their reach was certainly sympathetic, I found myself unable to accept it—I immediately knew that simple technology could solve the detection problem. Furthermore, I noticed that even in the jungle, bereft of electricity and perhaps a hundred miles from the nearest road, there was quite reliable cell service. And the populations there had come to rely upon it. That was when the solution to this one aspect of the overall problem became very clear. 

Originally, I built this technology to help a friend—Chanee, of Kalaweit. Along the way, I noticed that many other people needed it too. It became clear to me that the technical expertise available in Silicon Valley could be easily utilized to address serious environmental problems which persist simply because no such expertise is available locally to solve them. And on the flip side, we’d be giving great minds here in California inspiring problems to solve—problems more profound than cutting down taxi wait times and building another social app. And that’s why I founded Rainforest Connection! 

Mongabay.com: What audio signatures does your system listen for? 

Topher White: The devices in the field actually record all sound and transmit it to our cloud API. The analysis is done in the cloud, for a few important reasons:

RECOMMENDED