Using Old Cellphones to Listen for Illegal Loggers


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PAKAN RABAA, Indonesia — This village in West Sumatra, a lush province of volcanoes and hilly rainforests, had a problem with illegal loggers.

They were stealing valuable hardwood with impunity. At first, a group of local people put a fence across the main road leading into the forest, but it was flimsy and proved no match for the interlopers.

So, residents asked a local environmental group for camera traps or some other equipment that might help. In July, they got more than they expected: a treetop surveillance system that uses recycled cellphones and artificial intelligence software to listen for rogue loggers and catch them in the act.

“A lot of people are now afraid to take things from the forest,” Elvita Surianti, who lives in Pakan Rabaa, said days after a conservation technologist from San Francisco installed a dozen listening units by hoisting himself nearly 200 feet into the treetops. “It’s like the police are watching from above.”

Rainforest Connection, a nonprofit group based in California and founded by the technologist Topher White, has installed more than 200 of the treetop monitoring units in a dozen countries on three continents since 2016.

The concept behind Mr. White’s project is simple: Used cellphones, powered by solar panels, upload audio data. It is analyzed in real time by artificial-intelligence software capable of distinguishing the sounds of chain saws, logging trucks and other telltale audio signatures of illegal activity. The software then sends rangers instant alerts, through a specialized app that, in theory, could help them make arrests.

Mr. White, 37, said he thought of the concept in 2011 while volunteering at a gibbon conservation project in Indonesian Borneo, another island in the archipelago. He later left a communications job in France and began building early prototypes of forest surveillance units in his parents’ garage in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco.

Because uploading real-time data from phones requires a steady power supply, a key challenge was figuring out how to power the units with solar panels in the shade of a tropical tree canopy.

Mr. White said his team planned to install more systems globally while also developing a cloud-based database of sounds that would allow scientists to monitor elusive animal species. Scientists in South and Central America are already using Rainforest Connection’s audio data to track endangered parrots and spider monkeys.

For now, though, the group’s primary focus remains strengthening law enforcement capabilities in tropical forests affected by logging, mining and poaching. (Legalized deforestation is also a huge problem, experts say, but it requires policy solutions rather than law enforcement ones.)

During a recent trip to Sumatra, he installed a dozen surveillance systems in community-managed forests on the outskirts of four villages, including Pakan Rabaa.

Installing the software — by using rock-climbing equipment to ratchet himself up a rope, nearly 200 feet into the treetops — went smoothly enough despite the stifling heat and the leeches that crawled into his boots.

But in Pakan Rabaa, Mr. White’s technical presentation on how his software should be used was peppered with technical terms that might have confused someone with a Ph.D. The forest patrollers in the audience, who make their living by rice farming, were understandably baffled.

“That stuff is too complicated for me,” said Ujang, one of the local rangers, who goes by one name. “I’ll just keep patrolling.”

The local rangers were also disappointed to learn that, because phone signals were patchy in the nearby forest, the surveillance gear would be useless in a cellular dead zone where loggers liked to illegally harvest cinnamon and rattan — the very activity villagers feared would destabilize local watersheds and exacerbate seasonal flash floods.

An even greater challenge was that illegal logging is rarely prosecuted in Indonesia, and the patrollers had only partial law-enforcement powers.

“Can you just make a tool that will turn off the chain saws?” Ms. Surianti’s husband, Zulsafrihardi, the secretary of the village’s quasi-official Community Forest Committee, asked Mr. White at the end of the presentation.

“It’s only you who can actually stop it,” Mr. White said.



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