How One Silicon Valley Inventor and a Slew of Recycled Cell Phones Could Save the Rainforest
Topher White trundles along a rutted dirt-and-rock road in the predawn gloom of a damp forest morning. White has worn the same clothes all week, although at the moment he has clean hair courtesy of a “shower”—that is, cold water poured over his head from a metal pan while he inspected himself for ticks (he found at least two).
White heads to the base of a 115-foot-tall pigio tree that stands at a fortuitously high spot in the 15,000-acre Cerro Blanco forest reserve, at the edge of Ecuador’s largest city, Guayaquil. There, he inserts his 6-foot-4 frame into a custom-made harness, which he attaches to a thick rope hanging from a high branch. In an almost Cirque du Soleil–like feat of acrobatics, he then “walks” up the 15-foot-thick trunk carrying two backpacks of equipment. Dangling from his waist is a flower-shaped rig that he will hang from one of the canopy’s branches. The rig’s “petals” are solar panels that trap sunlight, convert it into energy, and charge a battery connected to a recycled cell phone—the unexpected secret weapon in his fight to save the world’s tropical forests.
White remains up in the tree for more than two hours. He occasionally hammers softly, but otherwise the only sounds are the calm breeze rustling, the birds cawing, the mating calls of howler monkeys. Iridescent blue and silver morpho butterflies flutter by, among a thousand other insect species going about their business. The main purpose of the device White is installing is to listen—but not for these sounds. Rather, it will alert forest rangers when it hears unnatural noises: the rev of a chainsaw (illegal loggers) or the boom of gunshots (poachers).
By the time White leaves Guayaquil, after a five-week stay, he will have installed eight of these devices high up in sturdy trees. Though they’ll require a bit more back-end work by White and the far-flung band of engineers who work for his nonprofit, Rainforest Connection, before they begin transmitting alerts or useful data, the machines immediately provide an audio livestream. Eric Horstman, the California-born executive director of Fundación Pro-Bosque, the nonprofit that manages Cerro Blanco and brought White to Ecuador, can listen on his laptop in his office—and he can hardly contain his glee. “Our men can’t be everywhere,” he says. “But this opens up another dimension for us. Our trees now have ears.”
It would have seemed absurd for anyone to suggest, back when he was a nerdy kid attending a San Francisco prep school known for its arts programs, that Topher White was destined to spend his days traipsing through the trees combating climate change. He spent most of his 20s as a peripatetic vagabond, dabbling as a hired hand at various Silicon Valley start-ups, dancing in a touring Neil Young rock opera, and building elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions at Dennis Hopper’s New Mexico estate. The perils of the world’s forests were not high on his agenda.
Then, in 2011, while speaking at a conference in Malaysia alongside his computer science professor father, he and his girlfriend (now wife), Amélie, took a side trip to Borneo to volunteer at a gibbon reserve. As he describes in a 2014 TED talk, he was overwhelmed and delighted by “the constant cacophony”—and then baffled when, on a leisure hike, he came across a group of men illegally cutting down a tree. It wasn’t that the rangers didn’t care; they just couldn’t hear the chainsaw whirring less than a half-mile away.
He returned to the U.S. with an idea: Program solar-powered devices to listen for sounds of jungle mischief and have them send real-time notifications to the authorities. It may have started out as a geeky notion, but White soon realized that bringing it to reality was of great urgency. As he said at TED, “deforestation accounts for more greenhouse gas than all of the world’s planes, trains, cars, trucks, and ships combined.” Stopping illegal logging “might just be the cheapest, fastest way to fight climate change.” In short: Save the rainforest, save the planet.
Eighteen months later, he went to Indonesia to field-test a prototype he’d developed by trick-or-treating across the Bay Area for technical advice and expertise. (He also enlisted the help of a professional tree-climbing trainer after falling off a branch in San Francisco trying to teach himself.) On the second day his device was live, he and the reserve’s rangers received a notification with the GPS coordinates of an active chainsaw. They raced to the location to startle a group of illegal loggers—an incident White recorded on video and then publicized on social media. By 2012, he and a friend had cofounded Rainforest Connection; in 2014, with the help of old pal Neil Young, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $100,000. More than 2,800 people gave a total of $167,299, along with a steady stream of hundreds of used cell phones, which continue to pour in at a pace of more than 100 a month.
Using recycled cell phones started as a practical, low-cost idea, White says, but it quickly became an important way of grabbing the imagination of donors and giving them a personal stake. “There’s not much that’s more personal to people than their phones,” he says. “When you give a phone, and it ends up somewhere, we can track it.” Soon, he will be able to give donors the ability to livestream the sounds of the jungle where their old phones are affixed. Extra phones don’t go to waste, either; the software for the rig runs on the Android operating system, so old iPhones and BlackBerrys are given to rangers and other forest employees to upgrade their equipment.
From Indonesia, White moved on to Cameroon and Brazil, installing rigs in partnership with NGOs, indigenous tribes, and even a sustainable logging company. But his efforts to scale up the project hit a snag: He’s pretty much the only person capable of building, installing, and activating the rigs. (Another issue: They operate for only around a year, because water and heat eventually ruin them.) That limitation has made it a struggle to grow Rainforest Connection to a point where it can have more than a symbolic impact on deforestation and poaching.
White’s goal is to one day grow from the few dozen rigs he has installed in trees to thousands of them all over the world. That would require him to both devise a more durable model and to teach staffers and volunteers how to build, install, and troubleshoot them. For this next step, White needs money, which means he spends a lot of time wooing donors.
“Unlike most Silicon Valley startups, what we’re doing is in the middle of nowhere,” White says. “People want to build ‘high-tech’ technology, because it’s there and they want to use what’s considered the best. But for this, you want something that is comparatively low-tech that can work with the infrastructure that’s already there and doesn’t require that much expertise to maintain.”
Silicon Climate, a nonprofit that provides governing and operational advice and helps connect organizations to potential funding sources, adopted Rainforest Connection as one of its first causes last year. “Topher is in the space of saving trees, and there’s not a whole lot of economic motivation for that,” says Silicon Climate cofounder David Selinger, a former executive at Amazon and Overstock.com. “When we met him, he had accomplished a number of successful pilots but had no financial, human resources, or business plan. We made him ask himself, ‘What does it mean to have sustainable operations on
These sorts of questions have caused White to narrow his focus, if only slightly. The Guayaquil project is the start of a plan to specifically target Latin America for the next few years.
Cerro Blanco has more problems with hunting than with large-scale illegal logging, so when White returns to the U.S., he and his engineers teach the data-analysis system, known as the NeuroNet, to listen for gunshots, dog barks, and other sounds of wildlife danger. All that raw audio may soon become a trove of searchable time- and GPS-stamped data for a range of research, thus expanding Rainforest Connection’s impact.
“Let’s say you wanted to know the effects of human encroachment on a natural area,” White says. “You know certain male birds stop singing when hikers walk down the path. No one’s been able to design experiments that find out how long the bird stops singing. If it stops singing for 20 minutes, no big deal. If it stops singing for two hours, that could be a really big deal, and in that case, any path through that area may have a really disastrous effect on the species.”
Take the great green macaw, an icon of Cerro Blanco. Today, they are critically endangered victims of habitat destruction, numbering fewer than 100 in the wild across Ecuador. But thanks to White’s devices, the Jembeli Rescue Foundation in Guayaquil has had the confidence to release five captive-bred great green macaws into the wild.
“It’s something we’ve been waiting for, even if we didn’t know we were waiting for it,” says Rafaela Orrantia Parra, whose family runs the Jembeli Foundation. “It’s so exciting!”
Orrantia Parra explains that the foundation can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars geo-tagging parrots, but White can teach his system to recognize the great green macaw’s distinctive call, which would allow the sanctuary to monitor the birds.
For White, his role in helping these birds take flight fits neatly into his aim to help restore forests into healthy ecosystems. He may have started with the goal of stopping illegal logging, but he’s happy to see the technology used for any part of the conservation mission. “It’s been all-consuming trying to build things up,” he says, “but I’d rather be all-consumed by something I feel is worthwhile rather than by building some website or app that doesn’t make a huge difference in the needs of the planet. This is one way to use the same equipment and same technology to make an impact in so many ways we haven’t even thought of yet.”