Topher White connects and protects the rain forest!

Posted on 03 January 2018.

To tackle illegal deforestation, this young American engineer has turned old smartphones into solar-powered lookouts able to detect the noise of chainsaws and so alert the rangers in real time.

What’s in the rainforest? A surprisingly powerful cell network and connected people, used to using their smartphones.

Deforestation is responsible for a large proportion of greenhouse gas emissions and the mass extinction of animals. However, according to Interpol, in some countries illegal logging accounts for between 50% and 90% of deforestation activities.
For Topher White, a young American engineer, local authorities have to be given the means to enforce the regulations and so better fight deforestation. His idea? To listen carefully to the sounds in the forest using old recycled cell phones.

The idea came to him in 2011 during a trip to Borneo, Indonesia. While visiting a gibbon reserve in the heart of the rainforest, he came face to face with a man cutting down a tree.

The reserve belongs to the French association Kalaweit, which aims to safeguard the gibbons and their habitat in Indonesia. For Kalaweit, illegal logging is a day to day problem, and the association is forced to employ several rangers.

What struck Topher White during this unexpected encounter is that the man was working only a few hundred meters from the rangers' cabin. Covered by the usual noises in the forest, the sound of chainsaws can go unnoticed.
The sound of deforestation
The answer is to make the sound of chainsaws audible... Back in the United States, Topher White developed a prototype and founded Rainforest Connection.
Installed in the trees, the RFCx device consists of an old mobile phone equipped with microphones that capture ambient sounds up to 1 km around. A homemade solar panel system, also made from recycled materials, feeds the RFCx despite the shade under the canopy.
When the sound of a chainsaw is detected, the phone sends an alert to a server that sends an email and an SMS to the rangers, who can then get the logging stopped.

"It's not about finding a tree that has just been cut down any more. It’s not about observing trees from a satellite in an area that has been deforested either, it’s about intervening in real time," says Topher White.