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Old Phones Offer Lifeline to Africa’s Forests

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Posted on Jul 4, 2014

    Smartphone tracking device ready for installation high in the forest canopy. Photo by Rainforest Connection (RFCx)

By Alex Kirby, Climate News Network

This piece first appeared at Climate News Network.

LONDON—Some of the world’s most endangered forests may soon benefit from better protection, thanks to discarded treasures from the consumer society—mobile phones.

A Californian technology startup, Rainforest Connection (RFCx), has developed a tool—made from recycled smartphones—that it says will pilot new ways to monitor and stop illegal logging and animal poaching throughout Africa’s equatorial forests.

RFCx has formed a partnership with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), an international scientific charity that works for the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.

The two organisations are planning to install the anti-deforestation, anti-poaching technology in Cameroon this year.

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RFCx says it has developed the first real-time detection system for protecting the forests and deterring illegal logging, using discarded Android smartphones to send instant alerts to forest rangers, enabling them to intervene swiftly. It says current monitoring methods often rely on aerial surveys or satellite surveillance, which usually detect deforestation days or even weeks after the event.

The RFCx system was first tested in 2013 against illegal loggers in Western Sumatra, Indonesia, and proved that the technology would work. Using highly-sensitive microphones, each autonomous, low-cost device can protect one square mile of rainforest, often home to over a thousand species of plants and animals.

The devices, built to operate for years, employ a unique solar panel design that can generate adequate electrical power even under the shadow of the tree canopy.

Chris Ransom, programme manager for ZSL in Africa, said: “We think this could be a critical new tool for protecting large areas of rainforest. We’re excited to deploy it this year in collaboration with our local partners in Africa.”

Randy Hayes, the founder of the Rainforest Action Network, said: “This is the most exciting critical new tool I’ve seen that I think can help us get the job done.”

Topher White, RFCx’s founder, believes the right tools have been developed at just the right moment to make a difference. He said: “It’s clear that real-time awareness and intervention is a major missing piece in protecting the world’s last remaining rainforests.

“By using old smartphones and existing telecommunications infrastructure, we have built a system that we think could scale quickly enough to make a real impact.”

Species extinction

Deforestation is a leading contributor to climate change and to global species extinction rates. The US Environmental Protection Agency says that deforestation, land clearing for agriculture, fires or decay of peat soils accounted for 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2004.

RFCx says each of its devices installed is as effective as taking 3,000 cars off the road, in terms of carbon mitigation through averted logging activities.

Dave Grenell, RFCx co-founder, said: “We are experiencing one of the highest rates of species extinction since the time of the dinosaurs.

“Future generations will look back on this as a kind of holocaust. Protecting endangered forests is one of the most important things we can do today to help.”


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