This Incredible Project Uses Old Cell Phones to Stop Illegal Logging and Poaching

Instead of becoming e-waste, old mobile devices are modified to save trees and wildlife.
Jun 26, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

While getting Americans to recycle cell phones would cut down on e-waste, a San Francisco–based start-up, Rainforest Connection, has come up with a pretty sweet use for last year’s phone model that can save the environment and wildlife: It’s turning old smartphones into real-time listening devices that can stop illegal logging and animal poaching.

Indeed, every 22 months Americans replace their mobile devices, and after we get our shiny new toys we stick the old ones in drawers, or we chuck them in the trash—to the tune of 150 million per year. But if the devices get into the hands of the Rainforest Connection, they become a powerful tool in the fight to preserve nature.

To do that, the company modifies an Android (sorry, Apple fans) operating system and adds a powerful microphone. The phone is then able to continuously capture any sounds around it. Because there’s no power socket in the forest, the device is also tricked out with modified solar panels that keep it running.

Once the smartphone is altered, the Rainforest Connection installs it high up in a tree, where it’s hidden from the eyes of illegal loggers or poachers. A theft-detection system also is installed, just in case the device is located and moved.

How does this souped-up smartphone tell the difference between a tree naturally falling in the woods and one being chopped down by a bunch of guys with a saw—or whether animals are being hunted by one another or by humans out to profit from their hides and tusks?

The device’s open-source software transmits compressed audio picked up by the phone to a cloud server, where it’s immediately analyzed. Within seconds the server can determine whether the sound is a chainsaw, gunshots from poachers, or noises from animals in distress. The system then immediately sends a text alert to local law enforcement officers, who can quickly get to the scene and put a stop to illegal activities.

In 2013 the start-up successfully piloted its eavesdropping mobile phones in Western Sumatra. Now, to avoid the bureaucracy of government grants, it has turned to Kickstarter and teamed up with the Zoological Society of London to quickly expand the project to the forests of Brazil and Africa. Rainforest Connection writes on its Kickstarter page that it hopes to raise $100,000 over the next month to be able to “build enough devices to protect at least 200 to 300 kilometers of forest.”

Rainforest Connection estimates that each device is able to protect “enough trees from logging to prevent 15,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere”—the equivalent of 3,000 fewer cars on the road. Each one can also monitor one square mile of land. That’s “an area of forest so large that it is home to over 1,000 different species of plants and animals.”

If the project exceeds its funding goals, the Kickstarter page says Rainforest Connection will be able to add an app that will let the average person listen to the ambient noise of the rainforest in real time. And, of course, it will be able to get more devices out there to save trees and wild creatures from illegal logging and poaching.