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Scientist part of international initiatives to save the great apes


The extinction of the great apes -- gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) and orangutans -- is imminent if strict conservation practices are not implemented in the immediate future. Once these practices have been initially implemented, ape populations must be monitored to evaluate their success and to create incentives for effective protection. Dr. Nadine Laporte, an assistant scientist with the Woods Hole Research Center, is involved in international initiatives working to assess and protect these animals and their habitats.

Conservation efforts to save the great apes must identify, prioritize, and optimize actions and investments to protect these diminishing populations. According to Laporte, "In West Africa, most of the dense humid forest has been converted to agriculture, causing a fragmentation of chimpanzee habitat. The same is true in Uganda, where 25 percent of the country’s chimpanzee population is found in only one place, Kibale National Park. Only two small pockets of mountain gorilla habitat remain in vast areas converted for agriculture --the Virunga Conservation area at the tri-national border of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Rwanda, and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. The situation is no better in Southeast Asia, where industrial logging followed by industrial palm plantations has destroyed extensive track of orangutan habitat."

Most recently, Laporte and her Center colleagues, in collaboration with the Harvard Peabody Museum and the Max Plank Institute, are supporting The Great Apes Survival Project (GRASP) by initiating a website containing a preliminary list of priority ape populations and sites.

The GRASP Partnership was launched under United Nations auspices in 2001 to save the world’s remaining great ape population. GRASP aims to establish strategies for all regions of Africa and Asia where apes survive.

Based on GRASP preliminary findings, Africa has more than 70 percent of the priority Great Ape populations. It is not surprising that 51 percent of those are found in Central Africa, says Laporte, as large tracks of forest habitat are still untouched by agriculture or logging. She adds, "The situation is changing fast, and we need to put in place operational forest monitoring systems in each of the Great Apes range countries."

For the first GRASP council meeting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, held in early September, the Woods Hole Research Center developed web pages to provide access to a preliminary list of these important ape populations to the attending country delegates, policy makers and scientists. Sub-species population maps and associated tables can be downloaded as well as a series of reports related to the GRASP effort. Laporte says, "The ape population maps and tables are considered a work in progress. They can be downloaded, updated, and improved by apes experts around the world and shared with GRASP State Delegates and the general public".

Laporte’s efforts include other monitoring initiatives. In 2001, she developed a Forest Monitoring System "INFORMS" for central Africa, with support from NASA and USAID. INFORMS is based on the integration of high resolution imagery with field information on forest structure, composition and associated fauna in a geographic information system to improve the management of these forests and their fauna; users helped designing and ultimately run the system at local and national level.

Also, in collaboration with conservation organizations and African institutions, Laporte created a series of projects designed to track land-use and landcover changes in the forests of the Congo Basin and the Albertine Rift. The goal of these initiatives is to improve operational monitoring of wildlife habitat in Africa and to bring the results of these assessments to the attention of governmental policymakers in the region to promote conservation.

Laporte estimates that the rate of logging assessed through logging road construction increased from an average of 150 km per year between the mid-1970s and the mid-1980s to an average of over 650 km per year since 2000. This equates to an eleven-fold increase in the last 25 years. Since logging is often associated with increased hunting pressure and poaching, the monitoring of the logging wave in Central Africa is important information for wildlife conservation. By knowing where new logging fronts are, park managers can prevent the negative impact of illegal hunting. In the coming months, and in addition to the GRASP priority maps, Laporte intends to pursue additional applications of satellite imagery, specifically by making maps of the habitats to identify potential threats from logging, mining and deforestation. She believes that satellite imagery information has great potential for conservation applications. Laporte says, "Satellite imagery can help us to better predict population ranges and threats, improving the protection of the Great Apes and measure progress done by each country to conserve Great Apes habitat." In addition, the Woods Hole Research Center will co-chair a symposium -- "Remote Sensing Tools for Great Ape Research and Conservation: Current Applications and Future Needs" -- with the Jane Goodall Institute in June 2006 at the International Primatological Society in Uganda.

Dr. Laporte is a biologist whose research centers on the applications of satellite imagery to tropical forest ecosystems, including vegetation mapping, land-use change, and deforestation causes and consequences. She has been involved in numerous environmental projects in Central Africa over the past ten years, working with in-country scientists, foresters, and international conservation organizations to develop integrated forest monitoring systems and promote forest conservation. She received her doctorate in tropical biogeography from l’Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France.

Elizabeth Braun | EurekAlert!
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