How Acoustics Can Safeguard Biodiversity


    Apr 20, 2021

    Ecosystems that were once deafeningly loud and vibrant with life are being silenced at an alarming rate. One of my favorites, Rachel Carson, said,

    “But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

    Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist, Conservationist, and Author

    Just by this, we’re undergoing the largest and most rapid ecological transformation in human history. This is a sound replacing those birds and frogs:

    Existential Biodiversity Threats

    Two-thirds of the planet’s tropical rainforests have been degraded or destroyed. One million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction. This loss of species causes ecosystems to begin to break down. And this affects us, too. We’re destroying the foundation of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health, and quality of life. And I’ve had conversation after conversation with conservationists around the world about how threats have increased this past year with the effects of COVID-19.

    There is even more pressure on local communities and ecosystems. But the thing is, it’s really hard to know in a timely fashion where the illegal destruction is happening, when it’s happening, or exactly how all the animals that reside there are being impacted. Humans are visual creatures. We like to understand the world through sight. But sound travels further than the eye can see and encompasses all of life, the health of the forest, but also the destruction.

    I was in Nahuelbuta, Chile two months ago, which is where life on land evolves. There’s a tremendous amount of endemic species in this spectacular landscape.

    However, forestry companies have nearly destroyed all native forests. The ones that remain are threatened by illegal logging. My team at Rainforest Connection was there to install Rainforest Connection our real-time acoustic monitoring system that we’ve been developing since 2014. We climbed to the top of the tree canopy in the Nahuelbuta forest in sunshine, but also in some pretty crazy storms to install Guardians, our recording devices.

    The devices are solar-powered mini-computers, recording the soundscape continuously and streaming all that data to the cloud via the cell network. They’re recording everything in the forest.

    And we have access to all that data almost immediately from anywhere in the world. Once in our platform, we run artificial intelligence models for whatever sounds we’re interested in, such as vehicles, gunshots, hounds, human voices, anything that will let us know there’s a threat.

    We’re able to pick out these sounds in real time and send an alert to rangers on the ground via an app and web consoles, so that they can respond. This is what the ranger receives. They can see the spectrogram, and hear the sound of the threat.

    They, being the on-ground experts, then choose the best course of action. Our system has been developed in the face of some seriously extreme challenges. There’s a reason this hasn’t been done before. Installing devices in the rainforest is not an easy feat. We’ve had to figure out how to power them in the dark undergrowth of 60-meter tall trees, keep the inside of the device dry against constant downpours, and most difficult of all, retrieve a tremendous amount of data from the most remote places on earth. And more surprised challenges arise in every new location.

    But overcoming obstacles as we go, we’ve installed the system around the world, ranging from detecting gunshots to stop poaching in the Aoos Gorge in Greece, to detecting chainsaws in severely threatened rainforest in Malaysia, to picking out sounds of vehicles and motorbikes to stop logging in the Amazon with the Tembé tribe. We’ve had to think outside the box in order to execute these large field projects during the pandemic. The Rainforest Connection field team used to Rainforest Connection travel to every project location to install devices. But because of travel restrictions, we’ve had to adapt our Guardians to be plug-and-play, making it possible for local tree climbers to install the Guardians in the forest. This adaptation has actually in turn put us years ahead in terms of our ability to scale quickly to protect more regions.

    Growing this capacity to empower people on the ground to stop illegal activities has been our mission since the beginning at Rainforest Connection. But let’s go back to Chile.

    In Chile

    In the heart of the Nahuelbuta mountains lives the elusive Darwin fox. The Mapuche people, there for over two thousand years, know this fox as the spirit of the forest.

    But due to habitat destruction, there are only approximately 70 individuals left in this region.

    So a few years ago, we realized that the riches of the sound of forest goes far beyond detecting chainsaws. Species of all types, frogs, birds, bats, mammals, insects, they’re all calling to each other. Bio-acoustic scientists have known the value here for a long time, but new artificial intelligence capabilities make this a whole new frontier of scientific insight.

    The Darwin fox has a very unique call.

    The Darwin fox

    Scientists on the ground have been struggling to determine the exact range of the Darwin fox. The goal of this project is not only to stop the illegal logging of their habitat from sound, but actually understand where this fox is present by creating an AI model to detect that call. This will enable our partners on the ground to better conserve and restore the foxes’ native habitat to promote their revival.

    No matter where we look on Earth, life expresses and asserts itself through sound.

    This is as true under water as it is on land, where sound travels over greater distances and among some of the most cognitively complex creatures we share the planet with.

    Data from a partner streams from several hydrophones installed deep in the ocean in Vancouver Bay. And from it, we’re monitoring the Southern resident killer whale, a critically endangered species, of which only 73 individuals remained. However, just last month, a calf was born, making their numbers increase to 74. Sixty or more of them came together in celebration of the birth and AI allowed us to detect this incredible event.

    So almost all species make noise. Here we have the fake call of the leopard. And mantled howler monkey. Some gibbons singing to each other. Tree frogs. And some hungry macaws.

    All of these were detected in our system. 

    Why Acoustics Matter

    Acoustics are the best way to understand the animals that inhabit our living planet on a scale that’s not possible with any other type of data. In order to, we have to harness the power of cloud, AI and big data.

    This is the beginning of an unprecedented era of ambitious scientific discovery in critical conservation work only made possible by recently developed technologies. 

    We will be able to understand how the wetlands are faring by looking at the health of the insects. And if capuchins in the cloud forests are making a comeback and even stop human-elephant conflict by giving early warnings to farmers of elephant presence, we can tell corporations how to make their supply chains more sustainable by letting them know if their practices are encouraging the critters to live.

    We can stop ship strikes of whales in shipping channels. We can track the health of migratory bird populations. We can hear the alarm calls of the monkeys and birds to know when people are invading their habitats. 

    Acoustics are the key to understanding all these species.

    And this is the way we’re making it happen. Our data science teams are taking on the task of building regional AI models, making it possible to detect thousands of species automatically from the soundscape. We start with something called pattern matching, which expedites the process of labeling data to create AI models. What used to take scientists months to years to complete now takes just a few hours. Once the models are built, we can then visualize detections from a continuous stream of sound coming from the Guardians. We have detected 11 species.

    This endeavor is very much a collaborative effort. For example, corporations like Huawei can and are making a tremendous impact. We use the HUAWEI CLOUD and ModelArts for data storage and analysis. And Huawei has supported five projects directly in the last year, with three new ones being launched this year.

    Read more about the environmental projects under Huawei’s TECH4ALL initiative, including Rainforest Guardian projects

    So our grand goal at Rainforest Connection is to create a planetary nervous system for acoustic insights, resulting in everything from informed threat detection reports, to species distribution mapping to occupancy modeling, to soundscape analyses. Data from all our most important ecosystems around the world will be aggregated into one platform, where governments, scientists, NGOs, corporations, citizen scientists and indigenous tribes can all come together to utilize it to make informed conservation decisions.

    We’re gathering one million years of acoustic data from sea to mountain top, and from the tropics to the poles by 2030 to capture our living planet as it undergoes, as I mentioned, the most rapid period of transformation in human history. This never before attempted goal will result in a continuously evolving planetary map of biodiversity available to the public through our storage and analysis platform for anyone to use, resulting in actionable data and insights to inform positive change.

    The world’s sixth mass extinction is currently occurring. And we have the opportunity to chronicle, or soon it’ll be lost forever. Or if we act fast, inform how to change our course and keep mass extinction from being humanity’s legacy. 

    The idea of wilderness needs no defense. It only needs defenders. Aggregated acoustic data, coupled with analysis tools puts the power to create positive change into all of our hands.

    Visit the Rainforest Connection website for more information and to find out how you can listen to rainforests in real time!

    About the Author

    Chrissy Durkin is the Director of International Expansion at Rainforest Connection. She has had a variety of experience working in the environmental space, having spent recent years doing research, lobbying on behalf of advanced biofuels, developing marketing programs, and growing several environmentally-minded startups.

    Further Reading

    Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.


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