Preventing Illegal Logging and Poaching with AI Startup Rainforest Connection

How Rainforest Connection is a ‘Guardian’ of the world’s rainforests

In the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic, as lockdown measures forced people across the world to retreat to their homes en masse, there were whispers of the drop in human activity turning to ecological advantage.

However, illegal logging has increased considerably in South Asia and South America (Mongabay), and deforestation has more than doubled during the global lockdown (Deutsche Welle). This trend could even increase the likelihood of future pandemics, as researchers have drawn a connection between deforestation and zoonotic (animal to human) transmission of diseases (Stanford University).

“The fastest, cheapest ways for us to fight climate change is going to be in the protection of forests, and illegal logging is the gateway activity to wholesale destruction of forests,” says Topher White. 

White is the founder of San Francisco-based Rainforest Connection (RFCx), a non-profit tech startup putting technology at the forefront of rainforest preservation and protection. He first learned about illegal logging activities on the outskirts of a Gibbon reserve in the Indonesian region of Kalimantan and developed a small device using an old Huawei phone to help locals track illegal logging on the reserve. The device took over a year to prototype, and barely worked.

The results, however, were promising enough for him to leave his job at a French fusion laboratory and start RFCx in 2013. Today, RFCx is looking to take on as many as 20 new projects over the next 18 months, many of which are located at the company’s genesis point: Southeast Asia.

The making of a Guardian

What White built was the prototype of the Guardian, RFCx’s proprietary acoustic monitoring system. Using cloud technology and AI, these provide real-time audio data from forests to help local communities detect threats of illegal logging and poaching. RFCx’s AI processes the auditory information and sends alerts to local partners if it detects the sounds of trucks or chainsaws.

Eventually, the startup realized that it was sitting on an enormous mine of bioacoustics data from the forest–an entirely new kind of natural resource. 

“We’re really doubling down right now, putting a lot of our time and resources into how to really allow scientists, enthusiasts, and people who care about the forest to […] study and explore these massive soundscapes that we’ve stored,” says White.

The startup will be launching its new platform this August to make its field eco-data from around the world accessible to all, which could help its local partners benefit from the monetization of the data.

When sapient and artificial intelligence intertwine

While RFCx provides the technology, it is the local communities that must respond to logging activity threats, which is the stage most fraught with danger.

“It’s hard to go in there with expectations that these ‘unparamilitarized’ groups who care about the forest are going to actually take on militarized logging cartels, in some cases, at great risk to themselves,” White explains. 

Responding rapidly to RFCx alerts is the most effective way to deal with this, he adds. It’s easier to stop an empty logging truck entering the reserve than to intervene when the truck is on its way out, which could lead to violence.

Further, these communities care deeply about the forests, but often face pressure to clear out of forest areas for building mines or inter-tribe disagreements on the best use of forest land, requiring RFCx to find common ground in order to meet environmental goals.

“At the end of the day, we’re able to show that the reason that we’re working with them is because we care about their ability to protect the environment,” White says. “It’s the support of people on the ground that ultimately makes the biggest difference.”

Lockdowns: A proof of concept?

Despite restrictions on travel across the world, RFCx continues to collaborate with local communities through its technology. More significantly, Covid-19 has revealed that economies are not immune to global natural disasters and that environmental issues are as urgent as ever.

“In many ways, the health of the ecosystem is going to be a reflection of the health of the overall economy. Even in the short term, it seems more likely that the environment itself will pay the price,” White cautions.

The ongoing pandemic joins a list of other viral and natural disasters signaling that it’s time for transformative change. The message is loud, clear, and urgent for anyone who can hear it over the sound of chainsaws.

Sharon is a staff writer at Jumpstart. 

This article was originally published in Jumpstart Issue 30: The Lockdown Issue as “A Paragon of Human-Machine Collaboration.”

SHARE THIS STORY

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email

RELATED POSTS

Is It Ethical to Be “Overemployed”

Is It Ethical to Be “Overemployed”?

According to the American Bureau of Labor Statistics of August 2022, more than 7.5 million workers in the U.S. are overemployed, that is, they hold more than one job. With the pandemic leading to an increase in remote working and making people concerned about job safety, it doesn’t take a genius to see why people would choose to work multiple jobs.

Kanye West’s Biggest Losses of 2022

Kanye West’s Biggest Losses of 2022

Singer, rapper and chaotic personality Kanye West, a.k.a. Ye, has been all over the news and the place for the past few months. What’s more? Media personality Kim Kardashian is not all that he has lost. The famous rapper has also lost his billionaire status as his over-a-decade-long relationship with Adidas ended following his antisemitic (i.e. against the Jewish community) comments on social media. Now, he is worth US$400 million.

Top 5 Covert Signs of Sexual Harassment

Top 5 Covert Signs of Sexual Harassment

One of the gravest threats to a workplace is sexual harassment. Although commonly believed to be a situation only women go through, sexual harassment can be experienced by a person of any gender or sexual orientation. According to an analysis conducted by Gapjil 119, an organization that assists with workplace abuse, eight out of ten workplace harassment victims end up facing some form of retaliation from the aggressor, like getting turned down for a promotion or threatening their job.

Are You Being Quietly Fired?

Are You Being Quietly Fired?

In a previous article, we discussed how the modern workforce is expressing their discontent with their working conditions by quiet quitting. Quiet quitting means simply doing what is expected from employees instead of being emotionally invested in the jobs and going the extra mile for companies. Now, employers have taken a page from their employees’ books and begun using quiet firing to reduce the number of workers.

3 Inspirational Young Entrepreneurs Making a Difference

3 Inspirational Young Entrepreneurs Making a Difference

Entrepreneurship is not an age-specific venture. From Baby Toon by Cassidy Crowly to Minomynas by Hillary Yip, the rise of youth entrepreneurs has captured the world’s attention, showcasing the talent and creativity of our future leaders. According to a survey, about 60% of teenagers are interested in starting their own business instead of working a traditional job.

Reynold Poernomo on KOI, His Inspirations and Life after Masterchef

Reynold Poernomo on KOI, His Inspirations and Life after Masterchef

28-year-old Reynold Poernomo may have moved on from his MasterChef Australia days, but the world certainly will never forget the contestant who urged even the infamously austere Gordon Ramsay to soften and dub his dessert—White Noise—“breathtaking”. Watching Reynold on screen was akin to viewing a sporting event, where you are constantly rooting for him with foam fingers and pom poms because you marvel at his skill and aspire to have his courage and creativity.