This is a story of how I ended up in the African rainforest
03:00 at night, not the best time to hear the sound of Whatsapp notifications. “Ping”... and another one “Ping” and another. I left my phone off, who receives these messages this late!?
I hear myself thinking, I’m awake now, I might as well get up. But I resist the thought and fall asleep...
07:30 Thank god I got some hours of sleep after these annoying notifications. Getting up out of bed is a bit different when you are in Central Africa Gabon. The chimpanzees are screeching like drunk teens having a party and the sun that is coming through the trees feels intense on your skin. It’s true, you feel at home here, it makes sense.
Some things however will always be the same; time for coffee! Gradually the team gets out of bed and joins on the porch of the research centre we are staying.
“Did you guys hear that!” Robbie asks. “3 elephants!”. Then it hit me! These sounds! These notifications! They were coming from the system we deployed the day before! Ofcourse! But so soon!? We quickly opened the laptop and gathered behind it to see all the details. It was true; the cameras we had been deploying were reporting elephants. This was huge!
If you’d asked me 2 years ago about poaching and human-elephant-conflicts I wouldn’t be able to come up with a good explanation. Why would an engineer need to know anything about that, right? You get yourself into all sorts of interesting areas if you poke around a bit. Also open wounds on the forehead and 14 hour drives through impassable terrain among it, but let me start by the beginning.
When an apparent small thing causes a massive effect later on it's called the butterfly effect. You can see this effect in action when you start thinking about something and you cannot let it go. When pursued it will have a big effect. Imagine that; a simple thought or idea suddenly turns into reality. You never really know what the first thing was that set everything in motion, for me I think it was in 2016 when working on a project with Greenpeace. It was then when I realised how many things in the world are going sideways and that sometimes it's just a small group of people who try to change things for the better. I used to assume that big global challenges are on top of the brightest minds; project groups brainstorming and trying out different solutions and such. When a giant fire breaks out in the apartment building next door you’d think the fire department would respond right? Well some of the world's largest fires aren’t put-down as fast as you might like. The reason for this I think is perfectly explainable and is called the ‘bystander effect’. Basically it means a psychological effect that states that individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when there are other people present. Who is taking charge in a given situation? Is it going to be you?
It's an interesting theme if you think about it. Taking charge applies to so many things and it affects your entire life, but that from others as well. Most of the time it’s not so obvious that not taking charge has a big effect until it’s too late and you get punched in the face; literally. Well this can be the case for my pupils who I teach Karate. Not taking charge during competition will get your ass kicked. But you have to be careful as well; taking too much charge will deplete your energy giving advantage to the opponent. It’s about balance, and it applies to everything in “normal” life as well.
By now it's pretty obvious that we as humanity need to take charge on several topics, from climate change, plastic waste to animals going extinct, the list goes on. Where to start? If things seem too big to handle or too broken to be fixed we need a hack.
You might think a hack is nothing more than a quick fix, a bandage. But it’s more than that, it’s a way to get you out of a situation fast. In Karate a hack could be a distraction, a diversion! My favorite Karate hack is where the opponent thinks you sweep the leg, but instead you pull up your leg quickly and land your feet on your opponent's head. This move is called “ashi barai mawashi geri”. The faster you can do it, the better the surprise, and the result!
There are many Karate lessons that translate to situations in life. The name itself translates to “empty hand - 空手” , meaning you have to work with what you got. Perfect if you are looking for a hack!
It's July 2012, I’m staring at a television screen waiting for the nurse to say something that makes sense of what I’m seeing. My girlfriend has an electronic device on her belly and a lot of jelly. The whole scene looks a bit weird, but I'm too stressed out to make any funny remarks. The nurse continues to move around with the device, the television screen still presenting things my mind cannot make sense of.
There…… There… Do you see it…. No where! I reply, where is it?
Then I saw it.
A tiny, tiny human being. A couple of centimeters, nothing more. And it moved. I could see the tiny hands and feets move. It was like looking at an alien spaceship landing on earth. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I was looking at a little child, alive and well. And it was mine.
It was mine!?
I don’t know if you can have post traumatic stress from looking at your newborn on a echo, but for sure I think I would qualify for it. Everything felt different from that day. Happiness yes of course, but also more stress, and worries, a lot of worries! It’s one thing to look after yourself in life, but now you are responsible for another life. Another life! It’s terrifying!
Ok easy, you got this. Everything will be fine I keep saying to myself, it’s not like you’re living in a warzone. You have everything you need and the child will be fine.
Right. That’s true, no need to worry so much.
The problem with having a technical mind is that it likes to find patterns and makes predictions. I couldn’t help myself and think of how long it would take for things not to be OK anymore. If climate change continues, will this affect my child and how? What about the disappearance of the rainforest and animal species? How will that affect our kids? And then I had to be honest.
The future is not looking that good for our kids. We need a hack for the planet.
At work I couldn’t let go of the idea that we need to start fixing issues on our planet. Working at Q42 brings me into contact with many different people and organisations, so before I knew it I was talking to all sorts of people working at places like Greenpeace, Unicef, Warchild, SeaShepherd and WWF. I knew that these organisations existed but not exactly what they were doing. It was an absolute pleasure to see how much is being done by those organisations to change the tide. Being around these organisations sparked some interesting connections. Just by drinking a cup of coffee and dreaming about new ways to solve challenges was sometimes enough to see that it could actually be done! It was a matter of bringing stuff together. People, technology and expertise.
The first project we did was an autonomous flying drone for Greenpeace in Indonesia. The challenge was to come up with something that could monitor forest fires over large distances and that wasn’t too expensive. We bought a toy plane and installed a GPS and microcomputer in it. The perfect hack and it worked.
After that many other projects followed with different organisations. We were always looking for things that we could do right now, with the technology available.
In the next few years we got a lot of things off the ground. With one of the highlights going to Uganda and bringing together two rivalling tribes with the use of Virtual Reality.
At one time we had so many projects going on that were one way or another contributing to a better planet that we started our own little department at Q42 called, you guessed it: Hack the Planet.
Since many of these projects we did often stirred some interest in the media we got invited to Zambia to come up with solutions against illegal poaching. I heard about poaching in the news but never understood the magnitude of it. Did you know that Zambia once had the largest rhino population on the planet? Now there are none left. It's impossible to wrap your head around it and immediately brings back memories from watching old cowboy movies where people are shooting buffalo’s to near extinction from riding trains. I learned that these savage activities were still taking place, just the scenery changed.
With the rhino’s disappeared the elephants of Zambia are now next in line.
The trip to Zambia brought back a lot of new insights from talking to all the people working there to protect wildlife.
You probably came across one in your life before; a matryoshka doll. It’s basically a wooden doll in a wooden doll in a wooden… well you get the idea. Wildlife conservation is a bit like that. Take human-elephant conflict for example. We have elephants coming into towns destroying food supplies from people and their houses. In the process people and elephants sometimes get killed. If you start to open up the first doll you’ll get a new one! It’s the trees! The elephants are coming into the towns because the trees aren’t producing enough fruits. But wait! There’s another doll!... It’s because the earth is warming up, that’s why the trees aren’t fruiting and that’s why the elephants are searching in towns!
And then we have poaching. You’d think that all poachers are evil villains that need to be arrested, right. Well there are lots of different forms of poaching. On the one side we have a dad hunting small animals with his son to feed his family on the other a well funded paramilitary group with automatic machine guns killing elephants by the dozens for their tusks. And of course a lot in between.
This is the reason why working together is so important. Tackling a challenge like this will feel like it's impossible because of all the other implications. But if forces are joined you don’t have to face everything yourself. I think it's important to have a lot of people working and worrying about wildlife conservation and global challenges in general. The last thing we want is to act like bunnies in the headlights. We need to move around, talk about things, trying things out, making mistakes and getting laughed at for coming up with crazy ideas. This is the way we start making changes, this is the way we mobilize people and this is the way we can save lives.
08:30 the coffee smells nice. Just a few hours left before we need to get to the airport. The camouflage spray paint on the boxes is still a bit sticky, but my colleague Thijs and I discussed that it will be ok. Everything is now laying strategically on the floor so we can check if we don’t forget anything.
We have the camera-trap, the name says it all. It’s widely used by rangers in the forest to capture animals and poachers. These cameras are around since forever and to put it mildly are a bit dumb. The thing with these cameras is that they store photos on the camera. That's nice if you want to do some kind of bio-monitoring project over several months where you can collect the photos afterwards. If you want to know if an elephant or human is detected, they are not much of use. That is… until we made some modifications or “hacks if you like”.
Next to the camera-trap there is a box lying on the ground apparently spray painted by a wanna-be graffiti artist AKA me. While for me this was the first time ever doing something with spray paint, it worked out great! But what's more important is on the inside. This small camouflaged box contains more computing power than I had at home when I was 15 years old. At the time my parents bought me a Pentium 60Mhz which was the fastest available and came in a big tower that took some space. In the box we have the computing power that is about 30 times faster with the size of a matchbox.
We carefully packed everything in suitcases and moved out. Gabon here we come.
The car shakes over the road which is full of holes. We’re 10 hours in and probably need another 4 to get to the research center. Thijs, Floris and I are cramped in the back of a 4-wheel-drive that is stuffed with baggage, food, beer and potatoes. Floris, who came with us to film a documentary, had several smelly encounters with the potatoes and was glad to get out the back in one piece upon arrival at the station.
The next day we woke up early. We unpacked the bags and collected all the hardware. First thing we wanted to test was to see if everything survived the trip. We decided to use the laundry line and hang the boxes on them. This was useful because we then had them on eye level and could easily see the lights blinking when they connected to the camera.
Now everyone gathered around the laundry line. Robbie is talking to the eco-guard Brice explaining to him about the system. Brice has years of experience in the rainforest. He spends weeks in the wilderness when going to camera-traps and collects data from them.
“So these cameras are now able to connect to these boxes and then the box will send me a message and tell me what is in the photo?” Yes, correct Robbie says. Tres bien! Brice replied, “this is a very good result” and he laughed. Brice is clearly happy with what he is seeing and we can’t wait to show him some actual results.
Standing here in the middle of the rain-forest next to a laundry line full of the most modern technology in the world feels a bit weird. Finally we have the technology we’ve been working on for so long in the hands of people that need it most. This moment feels like you’ve been training for a competition or exam and then it's done. You’re there. The thing that you needed to do is done and everything is OK. There can be a certain sadness to it as well. There was so much energy and fun in the process and then there is the finish line. It’s over.
We both felt it, Thijs and I. Like it was over. It was the end of something.
And then the phone rings.
We’ve been invited to the minister's house, Robbie says. What? The minister, he wants to know what we’ve been up to. It’s a big honor, you know, Robbie says, nobody just gets invited like this.
Ok, let's do it.
It turns out this minister is Lee White, an internationally famous guy in the world of conservation and someone who is intensely working on protecting the forests and its inhabitants. We just came back from the forest and found a taxi running on his last threads but managed to take us to the house of Lee. During our talk we showed everything we developed and how it was working in the field. While explaining we couldn’t help smiling because it was a magical thing; we received Whatsapp messages from deep inside the rain-forest hundreds of kilometers away.
Apparently Lee was impressed and messaged Robbie a couple of hours later wanting to have another talk tomorrow where the head of anti-poaching would join as well.
“This is an ak-47 bullet”. The anti-poaching chief was shot at a couple of months ago and now holding a bullet in front of us showing that he’s not here to talk about the weather. “Poachers will shoot at these guys on sight” Lee adds, pointing to the chief. “We’ve been waiting for this technology for more than 15 years”. Thijs and I look at each other….
This is not over yet..