Protecting Rainforests Using Old Cell Phones

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SEATTLE — Rainforests consisting of tall and dense jungles are considered the oldest living ecosystems on Earth. Rainforests are a place of biodiversity, containing more than half of world’s plant and animal species while covering only 6 percent of the Earth’s surface.

These huge stretches of dense forests are mainly found in the Amazon basin in South America, the Congo basin in Africa and Indonesia. They require plenty of sunshine and rainfall and thus regions near the equator are the ideal place for their growth.

Rainforests maintain the balance of climate and water cycles and are a key source of oxygen. Disrupting their functions may disrupt the very existence of human lives. However, at present, rainforests need protection from illegal loggers and poachers who cut down trees and kill animals for personal benefit.

Although experts use satellites and drones to protect rainforests, these technologies are not sufficient to keep away illegal loggers, as they do not respond in real time. However, one man came up with an innovative technique of protecting rainforests by using old cell phones.

Topher White is an engineer, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and founder of Rainforest Connection, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization. On one of his hiking trips in the rainforests of Indonesia, he came across an illegal logger who was cutting down trees in plain sight as the sound of his chainsaw was concealed by the mixture of sounds from nature. After that incident, the idea of protecting rainforests with the help of discarded and old cell phones crossed his mind.

White developed a system using recycled cell phones with the ability to listen and distinguish suspicious noises from the sounds of the rainforest. Each cell phone is supplied with sensitive microphones and is charged by a small solar array. They are attached to large trees and protected with a plastic case.

The cell phone detects and transmits sounds to the cloud, where it is analyzed by Rainforest Connection’s monitoring system in real time. If any suspicious activity is found it is reported via SMS to the relevant authority for interception in real time.

Rainforests play a pivotal role in the survival of the local tribes, giving them food, shelter and medicine. About 25 percent of modern medicines originate from plants in the rainforest. They also supply many foods, like cocoa, pineapple, vanilla, turmeric, ginger, bamboo and sugar.

Rainforests act as a carbon sink, absorbing CO2 and supplying enormous amounts of oxygen to the environment. Protecting rainforests also helps to reduce poverty, according to a study done by researchers at Georgia State University. However, it has not yet been verified whether this is the result of increased numbers of tourists visiting the biodiversity or the development resulting from donor investment in that area.

The listening device of Topher White acts as a gift for the conservation of rainforests in a cost-effective way, as almost 90 percent of tropical deforestation is caused by illegal loggers. It has so far been deployed to forests in Indonesia, Cameroon, Romania, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua and Bolivia.

The technology has been enhanced to detect sounds of engines and gunshots so that poachers can be prevented from killing animals. It is already being applied by authorities of Bolivia to protect endangered jaguars. This shows the far-reaching benefits of the system and how they can be harnessed to protect flora and fauna all over the world.

– Mahua Mitra

Photo: Flickr

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