Terry Slavin reports on how San Francisco non-profit Rainforest Connection is recording sounds to protect nature in a dozen countries in partnership with Google, Huawei and Hitachi Vantara
Clipped onto a rope, climbing high up in a tree swaying in gusts of wind, Topher White finally reaches the roof of the rainforest and opens a laptop to run checks on a machine he built to transmit 24-hour live sound from the surrounding forest.
The machine is one of 27 “Guardian” sensors eavesdropping on forests in Indonesia's West Sumatra province, to listen out for chainsaws as a way to tackle illegal logging in the region.
A recent report from the Forest Policy Trade and Finance Initiative highlighted the role of illegal activity in driving forest loss globally. It found that 60% of tropical deforestation between 2013 and 2019 was due to the clearing of land for commercial agriculture, at least 69% of which was illegal.
Hotspots include Brazil, where at least 95% of all deforestation was illegal, and Indonesia, where fewer than 20% of palm oil operations comply with national laws and regulations, including a moratorium since 2018 on new palm oil licenses and the clearing of primary forests.
We're basically building a nervous system for the natural world
Over the next five or six years, White hopes to install tens of thousands of these audio sensors, which use old mobile phones, solar panels and a microphone, to fight illegal deforestation around the world.
“We're basically building a nervous system for the natural world,” he said.
White, 39, got the idea to use sound in environmental protection 10 years ago, while volunteering at a conservation project for gibbons in Borneo.
“You couldn't really monitor [the forest reservation] with people walking around, but sound seemed like a good way to capture really anything,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
With a background in engineering, White spent nearly a year building an audio detection sensor, then returned to Indonesia to test the system.
Today, White's San Francisco-based nonprofit, Rainforest Connection, is recording sounds to protect nature in a dozen countries in partnership from some of the world's largest technology companies, including Google, Huawei and Hitachi Vantara.
Timber harvested by communities from forests like Sirukam increased by more than 50% during 2013-2018
Incoming audio streams, from the Amazon to the Philippines, are analysed by artificial intelligence (AI) trained to pick out desired information, from the sounds of logging to bird calls.
If the system hears a chainsaw, it sends an alert via an app to community patrols, who can check on the ground for logging.
Since it was installed more than a year ago in West Sumatra, local monitors say the system has made their jobs easier as they help with Indonesia's crackdown on forest encroachment, which includes tougher law enforcement.
According to Global Forest Watch, a satellite monitoring service run by WRI, Indonesia's humid old-growth forest production from logging concessions declined between 2013 and 2018, but timber harvested by communities from forests like Sirukam increased by more than 50% during the same period.
The canopy sensor White was checking in West Sumatra's Solok regency is less than an hour's walk through the forest from the road leading to Sirukam, a village sustained mainly by farming.
Until recently, about 200 of Sirukam's 6,000 residents opted to illegally extract timber from the forest because it is more lucrative than farming, according to Medison, who heads the LPHM, a local forestry agency.
Logging has totally stopped – people are afraid of coming to this area
“(Logging) has totally stopped – people are afraid of coming to this area,” said patroller Jasrialdi, who goes by one name, like many Indonesians.
Yozarwardi Usama Putra, head of West Sumatra's forestry department, said he would like to expand the project̕s “early-warning system” beyond the 27 sensors currently installed around the province.
As well as tracking forest sounds, White's technology is also listening out for whales wandering into Vancouver's shipping lanes. Its data-analysis platform Arbimon is also being used off the southern coast of Ireland in March this year in a conservation project to record whale species and train machine-learning models to identify different species calls.
In the long-term, the Smart Whale Sounds Project could potentially lead to the development of an early warning system that will enable ships to reduce their speed in time to lessen the considerable risk of whale ship strikes.
For the forest-listening projects Rainforest Connections uses TensorFlow, Google’s open-source machine-learning model, while Huawei is providing cloud storage through its Tech4All digital inclusion initiative, as well as recycled Android phones for the treetop listening posts.
Chrissy Durkin, director of international expansion at Rainforest Connection, says the company has also been collaborating with Hitachi’s data science team to make the system even more powerful. “We created a predictive analysis model that makes it possible to see if there's an intrusion in an ecosystem before the first chainsaw or gunshot goes off based on a change from the baseline of what the forest usually sounds like. It̕'s in early stages of testing but we've had really positive results so far.”
We would have to be doing something very wrong not to make some major ecological discoveries
The AI has gone through six updates, deepening its understanding of the natural world with each iteration. White said he can tell just by glancing at a spectrogram if the system is hearing a bird or a primate.
And with engineers training the AI to identify more than 100 species with precision, he hopes Rainforest Connection̕s systems could prove a “goldmine” for researchers.
“We would have to be doing something very wrong not to make some major ecological discoveries over the next few years,” he added.
This year, Rainforest Connection plans to finish collecting data for peer review from Indonesia, Peru and Romania to prove the system does help curb illegal logging, which White hopes will prompt governments to consider using the technology at a larger scale.
Harry Jacques of Thomson Reuters Foundation contributed to this article from Indonesia.
This article is part of The Ethical Corporation summer 2021 in-depth briefing on natural capital. Click on the cover to download your digital copy for free.
Main picture credit: Harry Jacques/Thomson Reuters Foundation