As in many tropical areas around the world, Borneo’s lush rainforests are disappearing at an alarming rate due to illegal logging. This poses a real threat to the region’s incredibly rich biodiversity that includes 221 species of land-living mammals, 420 species of birds, as well as 15,000 species of flowering plants and 3,000 species of trees.
In a bid to prevent deforestation and the loss of habitat of so many species of animals and plants, a team of scientists has decided to take a rather unconventional approach: using the forest’s sounds as an indicator of its health and the state of its biodiversity.
Known as the Safe Project, the initiative is led by a team of scientists from Imperial College London, Universiti Malaysia Sabah, and the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership.
As Principal Investigator for the project Rob Ewers explains: “The health of a forest ecosystem can often be attributed to how much noise it creates, signaling how many species are around. As well as listening to whole soundscapes, we hope that in the future the system will be able to pick up individual species and record their presence – or absence – from certain areas.”
Due to the challenges of the rainforest’s climate, the SAFE researchers couldn’t use off-the-shelf products for this project. Heat and humidity can be tough on sensitive electronic equipment.
As such, they built their own solar-powered recorders that automatically send data over the mobile phone network, eliminating the need for anyone to collect it in memory cards.
“If we can get a fingerprint of each audio stream, we can compare how the soundscapes are different between different sites and begin to quantify the changes as land-use changes, for example when forests are logged,” said Sarab Sethi, a Ph.D. student involved in the project.
In order to enable similar conservation efforts in other parts of the world, the SAFE team made instructions for building the equipment available to all online. As for those curious to hear what the Borneo rainforest sounds like, the team has also created a website that streams some of the rainforest recordings.