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Guardian of the Forest

Using discarded cell phones and solar panels in remote rainforests, Topher White is working toward making an enormous dent in deforestation and climate change.


Topher White was visiting a gibbon reserve in Indonesia when, on a hike in the adjacent forest with other volunteers, he heard the distinct buzz of a chainsaw in the distance.

Instinctively, the group sprinted toward it. They came upon a man felling an old-growth teak, streaked and beautiful. Busted, the poacher dropped his tools and ran off.

The 2012 experience nagged at White. He knew that rampant deforestation meant not only the loss of the gorgeous, ancient trees, but threatened the survival of tigers, orangutan, elephants, and rhinoceroses.

Topher White Mountain Hardwear
Gibbons live in the trees White is trying to save.Pixabay

A 35-year old engineer, White puzzled through complicated problems all the time, and he began to brainstorm on this one. He figured the surest way to stop the problem was to catch the offending loggers. As he hiked, a picture began to form in his mind, of a technological system that could use discarded cell phones, solar panels, and a computer cloud (like iCloud) to distinguish chainsaw noise from the bird and animal din in the forest. If he could devise such a thing, he thought, he could stop the problem.

An impassioned White returned home to San Francisco and began working on the project. The phones were easy to get; same with solar panels. But he had to create software that could capture the real-time alerts and beam them to a remote location where responsible agents (rangers, forest managers) could access the information.

Topher White Mountain hardwear
Topher White assembling a Guardian transceiver while deep in Sumatra.Rainforest Connection

He worked on the project for a year, eventually devising a system that could send 200 megabytes of data into a cloud in a 24-hour period. In 2013, he traveled back to Indonesia to try it out in the same forest where he’d witnessed the logging. Working with several rangers, he rigged one of his phones 25 feet up in the forest canopy and initiated the system. Together, the men waited, White uncertain it would work.

But within minutes of installing the phone, someone began sawing a tree in the surrounding forest. The phone’s microphone picked up the noise, transmitting it to the Cloud, which sent an email alert to another phone, in White’s pocket.

Topher White Mountain Hardwear
Tipped off by an alert from White’s monitoring system, the Rainforest Connection team respond to a suspected illegal logging operation.Rainforest Connection

The men took off on foot through the forest, moving toward the sound, and found the logger. And White knew he’d created a weapon that could save potentially millions of acres of forest.

The compounding effects of logging

“People hear the word ‘deforestation,’ and their mind immediately jumps to trees,” says White. But it’s so much more than just the scarred, ugly patches of land. The aftereffects of logging are harmful on a much broader level. An average of 100,000 acres of rainforest are destroyed each day, according to the United Nations. Since trees capture and store carbon (a key cause of global warming), logging not only removes a natural carbon capture from the cycle, it also releases carbon dioxide.

White says an astonishing 18 percent of the world’s annual carbon emissions can be traced back to deforestation—beginning with logging.

By volume, to date, one half of the world’s forests have been logged. But equally bad is the patch logging done in remaining forests. It creates fragmentation, which makes it difficult for key rainforest species—howler monkeys, tapirs, sloths—which need large, unbroken tracts of treed land, to thrive. If we continue to lose continuous stretches of forest, says White, we could lose entire populations of these animals.

Deforestation also harms indigenous peoples, like the Tembé Tribe, who live in the rainforest region of the Amazon in Brazil.

White met them in 2014, after learning that for four decades, illegal loggers had ravaged their forests. He says the Tembé needed “a leg up to defend their lands and to turn them into a livelihood for their people.”

Topher White builds his amazing tree-saving devices with the help of Outpost attendees

Topher White Mountain Hardwear
Drew Schneier

Topher taking questions from his clinic attendees at the Outpost Tradeshow.

Topher White Mountain Hardwear
Drew Schneier

Topher White presents to an inspired group of Outpost Tradeshow attendees.

Topher White Mountain Hardwear
Drew Schneier

Attendees of the Outpost Tradeshow had the opportunity to assemble Guardian devices. These Guardians would end up protecting Peruvian rainforests.

Topher White Mountain Hardwear
Drew Schneier

The pride of Outpost Tradeshow clinic attendees, a fully assembled Guardian.

Topher White Mountain Hardwear
Drew Schneier

Topher takes a few lucky clinic attendees high into the Navarro Redwoods for a mock installation.

By then he had formed an official non-profit, Rainforest Connection. The group is helping the Tembé create an intertribal collaboration to manage their forests to sell carbon credits to companies looking to offset their impact. “The goal is for them to create long-term engagements in a tradable commodity on the international market that’ll also protect the rainforest,” he says. The project is under way and models another called the the Suruí Forest Carbon Project, which formed in 2012 and will prevent 33,545 acres of tropical forests from being cleared for 30 years. In return, the estimated 216 Tembé families living in the reserve will receive much-needed income.

But White’s passion project remains his cell phone systems, which are now in rainforests in Brazil, Indonesia, Africa and beyond.

How cell phones communicate in remote forests

White says smartphones are the most efficient, advanced, and well-understood computers available on the market today. And, incredibly, cell phone infrastructure exists even in places like the Rio Alto in Brazil. That’s because governments often require cell phone companies to install infrastructure near remote villages in return for development in cities.

A boon for trees: The remote infrastructure allows each of White’s phones to detect the sound of chain sawing in a one-square-mile perimeter. “Protecting 1 square mile of rainforest from logging is as beneficial to slowing global warming as taking 3,000 cars off the road,” says White. “It’s an otherworldly figure that we were uncomfortable putting out at first, but it’s been vetted by the scientific community.”

Topher White Mountain Hardwear
Old growth teak trees like this one are crucial habitat for rainforest dwellers.Wikimedia Commons

With funding from Mountain Hardwear through its Impact Initiative, White is helping the Tembé protect a 3,500-square-mile chunk of land. The Tembé have established a ranger station with guards that monitor the forest. White’s software transfers audio to visual interpretation, selects sounds that “matter” (logging-related), analyzes them and, when necessary, sends an alert in less than two minutes. The phones detect not only chain-sawing, but the sound of logging trucks rolling into an area, an early sign that logging is about to start.

That early warning not only increases their chances saving trees, it minimizes the Tembé’s risk of an armed confrontation. Because once a truck is full of wood—after logging has occurred—White says the stakes for both sides are higher. Through his work, then, not only are trees being saved but, potentially, human lives.

Connecting the world with rainforests in real time

Rainforests may seem like magical, otherworldly places, but they have a tangible value that impacts the entire world. Yet it’s difficult for people who’ve never seen a rainforest, or felt the humidity dropping off the leaves of giant trees, to connect with them on an emotional level.

“We have to advocate and educate,” says White. And the best way to do that is to bring the sounds of the forest—the very din that hides the whirr of chainsaws—into the phones of people thousands of miles away.

Topher White Mountain Hardwear
Rainforest Connection

He’s doing just that, with a subscription service designed to send real-time alerts any time an orangutan, say, is in danger due to logging. It’ll give people a precise understanding of what’s at stake. (Get the mobile app, Rainforest Connection, on iOS or Android.)

Basically, people think of the forest’s value in two ways, White says. One is extractive—how much can I get for a tree? And the other emotional—how does knowing a rainforest exists make me feel? If you can hear a forest, he surmises, you will be more likely to want to save it.

And there’s this: White’s phones have recently collected the sounds macaws make directly before a chain-sawing event happens in their direct region. Their “vocalization behavior changes,” White says, “potentially telling us that logging is going to occur.”

Identifying and capturing communication like that could be revolutionary. Between the cell phones and the birds, we have no choice but to listen.