Some 400 miles above you, the commercial IKONOS satellite is peering down at the Earth and taking photographs of extraordinary clarity. The machine offers detailed imagery of the planet at one- and four-meter resolutions and across the electromagnetic spectrum. Yet for all its space age bells and whistles, it has become an invaluable resource to a population of small, endangered apes, creatures whose personal tool set includes little more than sticks and sponges.
For the large, non-endangered apes that spend much of their time watching these creatures, IKONOS is one of several satellites in their expansive tool set that may help them protect the planet that both apes call home.
How the Jane Goodall Institute Incorporates Satellites Into Its Conservation Strategy
It’s been over 50 years since Dr. Jane Goodall began studying chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) in what is now Tanzania’s Gombe National Park, and her dedication to these endangered apes has never wavered. Intelligent and highly social, chimpanzees offer insight into anthropogenic development and serve as a bellwether for the health of the forest.
“When you look into a chimpanzee’s eyes you’re pretty much looking at yourself and your own place in nature,” Dr. Lilian Pintea, Vice President of Conservation Science at the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), told Planet Experts. “From that point of view, it’s obvious why chimpanzees are such an important species to conserve, but of course chimpanzees are also an incredibly important umbrella species and keystone species. They are the gardeners of the forest. By protecting chimpanzees, you protect so many other species that otherwise would be difficult to observe or manage.”
In the wild, chimpanzees have disappeared from four African countries (Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin and likely Togo), which puts JGI on perpetual defense to preserve the species. The total population is estimated below 250,000, distributed across fragments of their historic range. Deforestation has significantly reduced chimpanzee numbers, as has the commercial trade in bushmeat (a market that becomes more disturbing when one considers that chimpanzees are humans’ closest relatives, sharing 98 percent of their genes).
For over 15 years, Dr. Pintea has been working to protect chimpanzees across Africa by employing advanced geospatial technologies to map their habitats. Pintea directs the science department at JGI and conducts applied conservation research in Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo.
What exactly is “applied conservation?” In short, it means getting practical with species protection.
“Applied conservation science is focused on improving conservation decisions,” Pintea explained. “In our case, applied science specifically means that we have to think about all aspects of converting tools and knowledge into improved conservation on the ground.”
From Satellite to Surface: Making Conservation Personal
If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much more valuable does a picture become when it transcends a single language? For Pintea, the value of high-resolution satellite imagery has been incalculable to JGI’s conservation efforts in western Tanzania. There, JGI is working with local communities to improve land use practices in the Greater Gombe Ecosystem. It’s better for the people and it’s better for the chimps.
“Applied research means sitting down with decision makers engaged in village land use planning, district planning, and understanding how those processes work,” said Pintea. “Then bringing GIS maps into the process and providing decision makers information in a form they can use.”
JGI’s Geographic Information System (GIS) using Esri’s ArcGIS platform is now an essential tool to conserve chimpanzees. The visual data stored and managed by GIS allows researchers to analyze the physical relationships, patterns and trends occurring on the ground – and with increasingly finer detail. For the Institute, that means showing how forest clearing is impacting the local environment and how industry can work with rather than against it.
In 2003, JGI visited local communities with one-meter high-resolution prints of their own village landscapes acquired from IKONOS satellite. That opened new opportunities for the Institute’s community centered conservation approach, said Pintea.
“Even the villagers who cannot read, they could quickly find their house, their farms, places where they collect firewood. So you almost use the satellite map as a common language to communicate about values and land uses with communities,” he said.
JGI is particularly excited to be incorporating drones (unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs) into its chimpanzee surveys and community forest monitoring efforts. “We are pilot testing with Ugalla Primate Project and Conservation Drones UAVs, focusing on detecting chimpanzee nests, and illegal human activities in the village forest reserves such as scattered farms, settlements and logging sites while also documenting positive forest restoration,” said Pintea. The ecologist added that the chimpanzee presence data from drones will be “tremendously important for us when we map the distribution of chimpanzees [in the region].”
Pintea’s research with JGI falls under its Geodesign wing, which uses GIS to help communities both grow and preserve their biodiversity. As Pintea explained, “Our work with communities is about better designing landscapes that work for both people and chimpanzees. So it’s very important to bring people and technology and landscapes into one process. We adopted geodesign to our needs by merging it with conservation action planning for the practice of biodiversity.”
“I’m very fortunate to work with my colleagues on the ground and learn on a daily basis how science and technology can really make a difference,” said Pintea. Where communities actively collaborate with JGI, Pintea says he has been amazed how much the forests and woodlands can grow back through natural regeneration. Equally amazing, however, has been how rapidly political whims can roll back local policy.
“We did a fantastic work with communities in Tanzania, helping design village land use plans,” he said. “But because of elections last year, some villages decided to split on political boundaries, which means that a lot of that work has to be redone.”
Pintea was quick to add that the land gains are not entirely lost, “but it’s a reminder that the conservation never ends.”
Touching Hearts, Changing Minds
Working with local communities to develop sustainable village land use is literally a step-by-step process. The DigitalGlobe high-resolution satellites have been used to map every single house, every footpath, and JGI coordinates individually with each village to build a world in which chimps and humans can coexist. The process requires long term commitment to build the capacity of local communities, protected area rangers and governments, but for Pintea, who fell in love with African wildlife as a child after reading a book on the Serengeti, it’s a dream come true.
Having high resolution images of suitable forest habitats versus degraded land is a powerful tool to have on hand. JGI has a project funded by NASA in the works in collaboration with the University of Maryland that will provide each year a map of chimpanzee habitat health at 30 meter resolution derived from Landsat satellite images for the entire chimpanzee range in Africa. This kind of imagery, said Pintea, if presented properly, “really can touch decision makers’ hearts.”
“Sometimes just a picture of a deforested riverine forest, where you see half the forest pristine and the rest [as] scars on the landscape, can sometimes communicate to a decision maker what is the right thing to do,” said Pintea. As Jane says, it’s all about connecting the heart with the mind.”
Dr. Goodall’s influence on JGI and its staff of experts and researchers cannot be overstated, said Pintea. “I’ve seen her so often being in meetings where people get so overworked over this technicality or that strategy or plan, and having Jane in the room to help all of us put this in perspective, and zoom out of our individual rooms and projects and think about humanity and what we’re doing on Earth, and then linking it back to our individual actions, has been extremely useful and powerful.”
Having a founder and spokesperson for the chimps as widely regarded and recognized as Jane is a blessing, says Pintea. “Jane is speaking not only for the chimps but for all living things and increasingly lately about what’s happening to elephants and rhinos. Jane has a major role in helping us focus public attention on what chimpanzee conservation needs are.”
That high profile, however, does not translate into funding on its own. “Like many conservation NGOs, we are constantly struggling to generate funds and resources and be the most cost effective in using them,” said Pintea. “Sometimes people think we don’t even need support.”
Most recently, JGI and partners have joined together to implement the second iteration of a conservation action plan in western Tanzania. That initiative, launched by Dr. Goodall and Regional Commissioners from Kigoma and Katavi regions, will encompass an area that covers more than 20,000 square kilometers of wilderness. To protect it, JGI has helped create a web-based mapping dashboard that allows local decision makers to see illegal human activities reported by the village forest monitors using Android mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets across communities.
To learn more about JGI and its conservation initiatives, you can visit the website at http://www.janegoodall.org/.