Preserving the Environment

The Creator of Forest Guardians

February 13, 2018
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The Creator of Forest Guardians
A San Francisco nonprofit transforms old smartphones into deforestation prevention.

Topher White used to work as a software engineer at a power plant. “A nerd on a computer,” he jokes. And now? “I’m still a nerd on a computer,” he says, “but I’m up in a tree.”

White, 35, is the founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Rainforest Connection (RFCx) that transforms old smartphones into tools that fight illegal deforestation in real-time. Thanks to the organization, 110,000 hectares of rainforest — the size of more than 200,000 soccer fields — are being protected.

The idea came to White in 2011. As a volunteer at an ape sanctuary on the island of Borneo, he watched rangers spend the brunt of their time chasing away illegal loggers.

It made White think about the implications of worldwide deforestation. According to the U.N., up to 90 percent of logging in tropical rainforests is unlawful. Disappearing forests are a leading cause of climate change. Their vanishing act puts thousands of animal species in jeopardy, not to mention indigenous people who rely on them for their livelihood.

When a problem is so large, how can you stop it?

Enter: Rainforest Connection.

White’s solution starts with recycled smartphones. (“Even in a remote forest, you can often find good cell service, especially on the periphery, which are the areas most under threat,” he says.) Sound detection software is installed on the devices. Then, they’re hidden high up in trees, where they become “forest guardians,” able to detect a chainsaw or truck engine up to two-thirds of a mile away. A text, e-mail or mobile push alert pings rangers on the ground, who can quickly intervene.

To keep the phones running, White wanted to use solar power. The question was how. Trees under the rainforest canopy don’t get bright sunlight. Traditional solar panels wouldn’t work. Instead, White designed special solar panels with unique petal-shaped arrays and circuitry to harness the power of fleeting sun flecks.

Within the first few days after Rainforest Connection’s pilot project launched on Sumatra, an island in Indonesia, the growl of a chainsaw was detected. Just as planned, rangers came to the rescue.

In the years since, Rainforest Connection has branched out across the globe. White now spends up to nine months each year in the rainforests of Ecuador, Peru, Cameroon and Brazil. He’s gotten used to checking devices while 200 feet up in a tree — and for an occasional laptop to plunge to the ground. He’s not complaining.

Saving forests is only the start.

White’s forest guardians also hinder illegal animal poaching in protected spaces. The sounds they record 24/7 are an acoustic treasure trove of data. Every monkey howl and parrot call can help scientists track changes in some of the world’s most endangered areas.

RFCx’s free app invites the general public to listen to the sounds of a rainforest in real-time.

“I want to make nature interesting and compelling to the world,” White says. “I want people to be involved — not because they feel guilty about deforestation, but because they find nature so irresistible that they can’t look away.”

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