Meet the Tech Startup Revolutionizing Forest Conservation

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Californian Topher White was struck by the unremitting howls, hums and squawks of the jungle when he first visited a gibbon sanctuary as a tourist in Borneo in 2011.

He experienced the jungle’s exuberant sounds – the rhythmic buzzing of cicadas, the bold call of the rhinoceros hornbill bird, and the whopping cries of gibbons. But what White couldn’t hear above the constant clamor of wildlife was the mechanical whirring of chainsaws by loggers illegally cutting down trees.

The harvesting, purchase and sale of illegal timber is a problem that devastates temperate and tropical forests worldwide. According to the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL), the global illicit trade in timber is estimated to be worth 51 to 152 billion dollars annually.

In Borneo, WWF satellite studies show that between 1985 and 2001, 56 percent of protected lowland tropical rainforests in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island, was cut down to supply global demand for timber. According to Global Forest Watch, Borneo lost nearly a quarter of its tree coverage between 2001 and 2019.

One way to combat illegal logging is to employ rangers – the sanctuary White visited had three full-time guards. However, rangers can only protect against logging if they know it is happening. Walking out in the rainforest one day, White and his companions spotted illegal loggers felling a tree just 500 meters from the rangers’ station – the sound of the chainsaw had gone unnoticed, lost in the din of the forest.

White’s experience in Borneo led him to create the non-profit tech start-up Rainforest Connection, which is revolutionizing forest conservation across the world.

Thinking about how technology could help protect the forests, he realized that the solution needed to be simple, scalable and capable of utilizing what was available – people and connectivity. The sanctuary had guards, and, surprisingly, it also had good cell phone service.

With this in mind, White developed a novel solution in his parents’ garage – a monitoring device composed of old cell phones, which are full of sensors such as microphones and GPS trackers. White returned to Borneo, to a different reserve, to trial his invention. The test was a success – it alerted the rangers to illegal logging.

Chrissy Durkin, Rainforest Connection’s director of international expansion, told The Oxygen Project that the ad hoc acoustic monitoring system works using real-time hardware and offline software.

“The real-time [hardware] is called the Guardian, which is a mini-computer and is no longer an upcycled cell phone,” Durkin said. “It is a custom logic board with a weatherproof enclosure with solar panels, a directional antenna and a microphone.”

Topher White deploying a Guardian device in Tembé territory, Brazil. Credit: Rainforest Connection

Guardians are installed in the forest canopy, where there is just enough light to power the solar panels. The devices record the forest’s soundscape, and thanks to cell connectivity, the data is streamed to the cloud, where an AI model detects noises such as chainsaws, vehicles, and gunshots. A real-time alert is then sent to an app on rangers’ phones, enabling them to intervene.  

Founded by White in 2014, Rainforest Connection has since deployed devices in South America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. From enabling the Tembé in Brazil to protect their ancestral land against illegal logging, to collaborating with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to stop poaching in Cameroon, Rainforest Connection works with partners including Indigenous groups, nonprofits and local governments.

But there have been challenges. Durkin, whose team is responsible for deploying the devices in the field, said: “Installing technology in the middle of the rainforest is not an easy feat. There are bugs, there’s water, and there are all sorts of elements that you have to contend with.”

Durkin said that the team views themselves as technology providers. By working closely with their partners, the team has adapted the devices to function effectively in some of the world’s most inhospitable areas.

A Guardian device in the canopy. Credit: Rainforest Connection

Connectivity is another barrier. Although there is cell phone coverage in some remote parts of the rainforest, there are limits to where devices can be installed. However, Durkin said that the new Guardian released in 2021 will have satellite connectivity, meaning that devices can be installed anywhere.  

Since its inception, Rainforest Connection’s work has continued to evolve. The organization has recently rereleased Arbimon, a bio-acoustics analysis platform. Arbimon uses pattern matching. It creates a spectrogram – a visual representation of audio – of a species’ call. It will then automatically use visual recognition to find matches of all of those calls in the data set. Instead of listening for hours to audio, a scientist can look at the spectrogram, confirm the examples, and create a sizable data set. Rainforest Connections’ science team then uses the data set to build an AI model for that species.

The non-profit is currently working on AI models that consist of up to several hundred species. Using these AI models, different species can be tracked in real-time in some of the world’s most biodiverse and threatened regions.

Durkin said the platform is “an excellent way to monitor, at scale, how biodiversity is being affected by climate change, and by encroachment,” with the data being used “to inform conservation management practices.”

Topher White showing a local partner how the app works. Credit: Rainforest Connection

Having just returned from a field trip to Chile, Durkin said Rainforest Connection is working with local partners to create an AI model to track the call of Darwin’s fox, an endangered species, in the Nahuelbuta Mountains. There are thought to be 70 to 100 individuals left of the population in the Nahuelbuta Mountains. The area is also under pressure from forestry companies replacing native trees with pine and eucalyptus trees. Arbimon will enable conservationists to learn about the foxes’ habitat and behavior, and forest guards will be alerted to illegal forestry activity.

Beyond forest conservation, the organization is working with Ocean Research and Conservation Ireland to use software and hydrophones (underwater microphones) to monitor whale and dolphin species off Ireland’s coast.

With several projects on the horizon, Durkin said that “the goal of Rainforest Connection is to create a worldwide nervous system” that will provide continuous real-time data, enabling a better understanding of ecosystems and how we can protect them. 

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