Science & Technology

This Nonprofit is Using Old Cell Phones to Save the Rainforest

Rainforests are home to magnificent plants and exotic animals that make up 50 percent of the Earth's flora and fauna. But the world's rainforests are also disappearing — quickly. The Amazon has lost almost one-fifth of its rainforest in the last four decades. Our rainforests are the world's oldest living ecosystems, and it's our job to take care of them. Luckily, one man has come up with a way to help by using old smartphones.

Call Me Maybe?

Illegal logging in the rainforest is on the rise, which is especially alarming considering that deforestation accounts for 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The air is already filled with so much noise from rivers, waterfalls, and animals that it's been historically difficult to detect the sounds of illegal logging. All it took was one person with a simple yet brilliant idea: using smartphones to listen for the sounds of destruction.

Topher White is the founder of Rainforest Connection, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting rainforests by using recycled smartphones to detect illegal logging activity. He invented a system where smartphones are placed in trees, staying charged via solar cells. It just took the installation of an extra microphone to listen for sounds of chainsaws at nearly a mile away.

However, you wouldn't want to sit around listening for chainsaw sounds all day. That's why White developed an algorithm that's able to distinguish a chainsaw's sound from the other noises in the rainforest. Once the chainsaw noise is detected, the program sends a text alert to park rangers, who can catch criminals in the act. These devices have proved to be extremely successful in detecting illegal activity and regulating logging activities.

When they install an old phone, Rainforest Connection first wipes the device's memory and rewires the hardware, then fits it with a solar panel array and ships it off to a rainforest in need. Finally, the organization puts it in a tree — and if it detects the sounds of chainsaws, they jump into action. Rainforest Connection says that a single rewired phone could protect about a square mile of an endangered forest. That would have the same environmental impact of taking 3,000 cars off the road for a year.

Rainforest Warriors

Rainforest Connection isn't the only entity trying to save the rainforest. An indigenous tribe that is suffering the effects of deforestation has also taken action. The Tembé, a tribe based in the Brazilian state of Pará, has seen the firsthand effects of violent deforestation in their home. More than 30 percent of their territory has been destroyed by cattle ranching, fires, and illegal logging. As a result, the Tembé people have partnered with Rainforest Connection to assist in monitoring the phones in trees to listen for sounds of people trying to harm their home.

Rainforests are a vital resource for our planet, responsible for producing much of the Earth's oxygen and cleaning the atmosphere. Keeping the Earth's rainforests alive is essential for humans too. From medicine and rubber to spices and chocolate, many of the things you use every day come from rainforests. With the help of a few old phones, Rainforest Connection is working to make sure we still have this resource for generations to come.

Learn more rainforest restoration strategies and incorporate them into your life with Kim Henderson's "50 Simple Steps to Save the World's Rainforests: How to Save Our Rainforests with Everyday Acts." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Annie Hartman July 6, 2018

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