Hello, the rainforest is calling

This story was first published on June 20, 2015

IN A narrow patch of the Amazon rainforest, members of the Tembe indigenous tribe have pinned their hopes for survival on what seems like an implausible idea: Equipping trees with mobile phones.

The Tembe have paired up with Rainforest Connection, a San Francisco­based non­profit which uses a treetop mobile phone device to listen for the trucks, chainsaws and other telltale sounds of encroaching loggers.

The brainchild of physicist­ turned­forest crusader Topher White, the device looks like a daisy, with a weather­proofed mobile phone from which solar panels radiate out, to charge it. Hidden in the tree canopy, the device transmits ambient sound to the cloud, where software programmed to recognise the sound of chainsaws sends real­time alerts to rangers when such noises are detected.

It has been tested in West Africa and Indonesia, where it brought an end to logging on a small sanctuary for one of the world's most endangered primates, the gibbon.

Mr White, 33, came up with the idea while he was volunteering at a sanctuary for gibbons in Indonesia in 2011. To give the gibbons a fighting chance, he knew their shrinking habitat had to be protected from illegal loggers. "I got to thinking that the best way of doing this would be to listen for the sounds of chainsaws, pick them up automatically from the forest and be able to figure out where the chainsaws were coming from," he said.

Mr White said the stakes are even higher on the Tembe reservation in the Brazilian state of Para - ground zero of the fight over the future of the Amazon.

Devices will be installed along the perimeter of the 6,000 sq km reserve. Once the system is up and running, alerts will be sent in real time to the about 30 tribe members who are the Tembe's "rangers", charged with repelling invaders.

Despite its size - Rainforest Connection is a two­man operation, aided by volunteers - it has big ambitions. Mr White said: "We want to show that this is something that can be used elsewhere."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2016, with the headline 'Hello, the rainforest is calling'. Subscribe