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.”

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