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Dialing 911 for Earth: Cell Phones on the Frontline of Conservation

Explorers are using cellphones as valuable tools in the fight against environmental and wildlife crime.

As mobile devices and apps become the “Swiss Army knives” for everyday activities, researchers are also finding compelling ways to use them to advance conservation.

Two of several National Geographic explorers finding innovative uses for phones are Topher White, a software engineer, physicist, and inventor, and Krithi Karanth, an environmental scientist and conservationist. Both are Emerging Explorers, a status granted by National Geographic to uniquely gifted and inspiring explorers already making a difference early in their careers.


What can you do with your phone?

Consider using your mobile device to monitor wildlife in your backyard. Many apps may be downloaded to help identify species you photograph, including plants. Place your device in a window where you can monitor the activities of wildlife such as birds and nocturnal animals through the time-lapse setting of your device camera. Do some Internet research to find out how you can participate in either a BioBlitz in your area, or in a project such as the Great Backyard Bird Count. Use your video camera to record animal activities and sounds while walking in the woods.

Topher, from San Francisco, founded Rainforest Connection in 2012 to recycle cell phones into autonomous, solar-powered listening devices that can monitor and pinpoint chainsaw, vehicle, or other suspicious noises within a square mile of forest, providing the world’s first audio-based system to detect illegal logging. The phones record and transmit the audio into the cloud, where Rainforest Connection analyzes it in real time. Suspicious activity is reported through SMS to the relevant authorities, so that illegal activities can be interdicted in real time.

The system is already operating in forests in Asia and Africa, while in Brazil the indigenous Tembé people are using it to monitor and prevent illegal logging, land invasion, and other crimes against their sprawling territory.

Picture of leopard

Emerging Explorer Krithi Karanth helps preserve leopards and other charismatic fauna in India’s forests with the help of mobile phones. Her strategy uses a monitoring system of poaching incidents and a poachers-traders database linked to a mobile phone alert system to enable real-time response.

Photograph by Krithi Karanth/National Geographic

In India, Krithi Karanth is also a recipient of a National Geographic Big Cats Initiative grant, supporting her work to identify and promote public awareness and conservation of India’s remaining tigers and leopards. Poaching and trade of these wild cats remains a troubling problem on the fringes of India’s protected areas, she says.

Taking advantage of widespread use of mobile phones in India, Krithi has devised a plan to establish a real-time monitoring system of poaching incidents and a poachers-traders database linked to a mobile phone alert system, which also helps identify trade patterns around six reserves. The monitoring is supported by interventions in collaboration with law enforcement.

Krithi hopes that the project will establish the foundation for long-term, cost-effective, and civil-society-based monitoring of poaching and trade for globally significant populations of two big cats.

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