Today’s abundant satellite imagery can pinpoint where deforestation is happening. But that doesn’t help catch illegal loggers in the act. Now, a California-based non-profit is using old smartphones to monitor rainforests in real time by listening for sounds of illegal logging, poaching and even endangered species. The phones are programmed to instantly alert local authorities via an app, potentially giving them a better shot at apprehending the culprits.

A swath of forest the size of the United Kingdom is lost each year, and most of it is coming from tropical rainforests. The loss of tropical forests to deforestation is a major driver of climate change, accounting for 8 percent of global greenhouse emissions. If tropical deforestation was a country it would be the third largest contributor to global emissions — just behind the United States. In many tropical countries, 50 to 90 percent of all logging is illegal. 

To help park rangers listen for the sounds of environmental crime, the organization, called Rainforest Connection, attaches extra microphones to the donated cell phones and rigs them high in the treetops along with small solar arrays to supply power. 

These listening posts in the canopy use software from Google to pick out the sounds of chainsaws, trucks or gunshots and trigger an alert that pings local enforcement. The gizmos are sensitive enough to flag illegal activity up to a mile away.

A Peruvian nonprofit told the New York Times that the alerts from Rainforest Connection’s devices helped rangers arrest two members of an illegal logging outfit that had been ravaging the region for years. Rangers in Indonesia also used alerts from the system to catch illegal loggers in the act, driving them away.

After launching with a successful Kickstarter campaign, Rainforest Connection now has a budget in excess of $1 million through contributions from philanthropy and companies like Google, Huawei and Hitachi. 

But the system isn’t without limitations. In some places, lack of cellular reception keeps alerts from going out. Some rangers may also find the system and its accompanying app too complex, or simply be wary of confronting potentially armed criminals in the jungle. Environmental crimes like illegal logging also seldom prosecuted in countries like Indonesia. And rangers may not have full legal dispensation to make arrests. 

Nearly 1,000 square miles of forest is monitored by Rainforest Connection’s tech as of early 2019. The organization is currently furnishing a cloud-based database of animal sounds to allow scientists and governments to document and track rare wildlife. The technology is already being used to track endangered parrots and spider monkeys in South and Central America. 

Some video imagery courtesy of Rainforest Connection (RFCx)


Published on Nov 06, 2019