Watch How a Gadget in Your Pocket Is Helping Save Endangered Orangutans

Indonesian communities are using their smartphones to crowdsource data on the health of rainforests—and catch illegal loggers.
Mar 11, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

While you’ve been Snapchatting with your BFFs on your smartphone, activists in Indonesia have been using theirs to save the rainforest home of orangutans, tigers, rhinos, and elephants.

Koalisi Peduli Hutan Aceh is a network of indigenous community activists in Aceh province, at the far western end of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Around 4.7 million people live in the Aceh forest, depending on it for clean water, food, and protection from flooding and drought.

KPHA members are using smartphones to crowdsource data on the health of the forest.

In collaboration with a Washington, D.C.– and London-based group called the Environmental Investigation Agency, KPHA developed smartphone apps that let members collect their observations, geotag the information, and transmit it to a website for near real time mapping and display alongside other data, such as the boundaries of protected areas.

KPHA can then follow up the fieldwork with quick legal action to protect the forest.

“The exciting aspect of these on-the-ground training and empowering mechanisms, including smartphones that can upload information from the forest, is that they suddenly matter more than they ever did before,” said Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of EIA in the U.S., “because now they can put a CEO in jail on the other side of the world.”

He’s referring to the Lacey Act, a U.S. law against illegal wildlife trade that was updated in 2008 to include more plants and plant products.

In 2013 federal officials used the law to raid the headquarters of Lumber Liquidators, the nationwide wood-flooring retailer. The company faces indictment for knowingly importing wood illegally harvested from the forests of the Russian Far East—home to Siberian tigers—to sell as flooring to customers in the U.S.

Smartphones and mobile phone networks are “connecting people in the forests to these tools,” said von Bismarck, "and from there to people who care in the rest of the world.”