Topher White spends a lot of time walking in—and thinking about—the forest, and how quickly we’re losing it. So much so that he’s gotten a black eye from being smacked by flying tree branches. But that’s just a small example of what the engineer is willing to endure to stop global deforestation. Founder of the San Francisco-based nonprofit Rainforest Connection, White has developed a simple but ingenious strategy: using old cell phones to listen for the sound of destruction.

Forests are disappearing worldwide, and fast: Swaths half the size of England are lost each year. The Amazon has lost close to one-fifth of its rain forest cover in the last four decades. Forest loss not only harms wildlife, including many species that live nowhere else, it’s a big contributor to the greenhouse gas emissions that stoke climate change, accounting for about 17 percent of the world’s annual total. 

“I didn’t know any of this stuff when I started,” says White, who began his journey in 2011, when he traveled to Indonesian Borneo to help dwindling gibbons“I just kind of thought it was about protecting the small areas and animals,” he recently told National Geographic. “But no, [deforestation is] actually one of the biggest contributors to climate change.” (Read more about rain forest threats.)

Originally published on the National Geographic website.

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