Conservationists climb into the rainforest canopy to install listening devices, which alert rangers to chainsaws and logging trucks.
Topher White sits atop a tarp covering a mass of red mud, ignoring the copious angry welts covering his arms. “They look worse than they are,” he grins, ambivalent to the rapacious dive-bombing swarm of tropical insects. Here in the middle of an Ecuadorian rainforest, White is entrenched in his own battle plans.
“We’re here trying to fight back against the loggers,” explains White, CEO of the Rainforest Connection (RFCx), a conservation non-governmental organization (NGO).
Chocó Rainforest certainly needs champions. There is only a sliver left to defend near the border between Ecuador and Colombia. Michaël Moens, conservation director of the Jocotoco Foundation, has witnessed the forest’s demise. “In the past 50 years, 98 percent of the Choco rainforest disappeared and over 60 percent has been illegally logged,” he says.
Researchers recently documented more than 500 bird species in the Ecuadorin Chocó Rainforest, many of which occur nowhere else on the planet. “If this forest is gone, 60 species of birds will die out.” Illegal logging also jeopardizes the critically endangered brown-headed spider monkey, the endangered harpy eagle, and a critically endangered subspecies of jaguar.
If defending fragile species is one priority for the team, curtailing human-caused global warming is equally important. “There will be mass extinctions if we don’t stop climate change,” says White. “Forests take carbon out of the atmosphere, and forest themselves can cool the planet. Climate change is not going to be something that gets solved overnight, but it’s not hopeless.”
Today, White and his crew each haul a huge pack of climbing gear up a slippery three kilometer jungle trail, bracing against tropical downpours that cut through raincoats. While he has no human surveillance troops, White establishes base camp and surrounds himself with his version of deployable “ammunition”: solar panels and old cell phones.
“To actually monitor the forest 24×7 in a very high-end way that almost no one else can do, what do you need?” he asks. “You need a little cell phone in a box with batteries to keep it powered, some electronics to make sure you can keep it going with solar panels, and a powerful microphone.”
White’s background as a physicist helped him design a device called the RFCx Guardian. “We call it that because even if people can’t be in the forest all the time, this is there, always listening.”
The sole purpose of the RFCx Guardian is to sit in treetops and listen for sounds of destruction like chainsaws and logging trucks.
The commonplace hardware joins forces with his secret weapon — cloud-based technology — to create some serious surveillance capabilities.
“In terms of what you can do with the software — streaming it to the cloud, being able to analyze it up there — that’s when the really amazing stuff starts!” White explains the combined firepower in layman’s terms: “They’re actually catching all the sound and launching it up to the cloud. We grab the data, we organize it, and then we can use it. Our networks actually pick out the sounds of chainsaws, logging trucks, animal species, all the rest. SAP Cloud Platform represents a critical point in the workflow.”
RFCx’s integration with SAP Cloud Platform took just three weeks. White says it complements the rest of RFCx cloud architecture really well: “We can make a difference in a way that’s very outsized compared to any other technological innovation. And so that’s why I’m passionate about this. I love technology that helps us attack illegal logging ethically.”
Moens says the technology translates sound detection data into pinpoint alerts, which are sent to forest rangers: “They can come here and catch the people in the act. That’s the powerful result of this system, because normally you arrive and the trees are gone. You don’t know who did it and when they did it. But this system allows us to actually identify the threats and act in real time.”
RFCX Guardian installations in Cameroon, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Peru, Brazil, and Bolivia have already proven the value of the technology. For example, in Peru, local tribal members responded to alerts leading to several arrests of illegal loggers, while in Indonesia, rangers alerted by the system caught illegal loggers in the act and drove them off.
Rangers on “the front lines are taking the risk. They’re actually taking responsibility for responding to alerts and stopping loggers,” says White. “As Americans, we may want to stop rainforest destruction, we may want to stop climate change, but we can’t walk up to loggers and tell them not to cut a tree. It’s not our country. People here actually can do that. They have the jurisdiction and the right and interest in doing it. We just have to make their jobs safer and more effective.”
As the Ecuadorian team straps into their climbing harnesses, White launches a giant slingshot, sending a guide rope soaring into the treetops. He and other climbers scurry about 75 feet into the canopy for a spectacular, yet tragic, view of the last remnants of the Chocó in the Canande reserve. “Looking out across the valley, you can really see the stark difference between the areas that have been deforested and the areas that are protected. It’s our job to hold that line. From up there, you can see it all in context.”
The Guardian listening devices are only the first step in the ultimate counterattack against logging. In days and months to come, Moen’s Jocotoco Foundation will purchase corridors of rainforest to block roads and thwart loggers. But enduring conservation only comes from opportunity. “People don’t have a lot of job or education options. So, when a logging company comes in and offers them money, they will say ‘yes’ because they don’t have a lot of other business,” says Moens.
Families need new income sources rather than grazing cattle, or planting cash crops like cocoa trees and date palms. Some conservationists support paying indigenous people to protect rainforests, claiming it as the most cost-effective investment to reduce carbon. Meanwhile, the ancient practice of agroforestry is regaining popularity by promoting the cultivation of food or medicinal crops in forests while maintaining the trees’ health. However, this farming method requires serious long-term investment.
“It’s part of Rainforest Connection’s mission to come up with ways that they can actually use the forest to earn their livelihoods, to take advantage of the interests of the entire world in protecting it, and to allow them to keep their forest and also support their families,” says White.
“We all hear this bad news on the news from climate, deforestation,” adds Moens. “Here in Chocó, we actually make decisions every day that change the state of the forest. We decide the best way to save it for future generations. And that gives a big personal satisfaction.”
By the end of this grueling, sloppy, bug-infested mission, White’s team will have installed enough Guardian devices to listen to the most critical areas throughout the entire 16,000 hectare, or about 40,000 acres, Canande reserve, enough to give conservationists hope that the remaining two percent of the rainforest might survive.