Gorillas to be guarded from orbit

A joint ESA and UNESCO scheme to keep watch on endangered gorilla habitats from space is the subject of a two-day ESRIN workshop this week.

Representatives of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the World Wildlife Fund, the International Gorilla Conservation Fund and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International and United Nations Environment Programme are among those who will attend the meeting in Frascati near Rome to discuss possible partnership and agreement in joining efforts.

As Mario Hernandez, UNESCO, describes, “it was a century ago this year that the mountain gorilla was first scientifically described, dwelling in the high rainforests of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today, due to ongoing deforestation and illegal poaching, they are a critically endangered species – there are only about 650 of them left alive. There are also separate subspecies of lowland gorillas that are also endangered. However the situation indicates that we are still in time to reverse the process.”

UNESCO together with the involved countries has recognised the mountain gorilla habitat and specifically the area included in the Virunga National Park in the Congo, bordering Rwanda and Uganda, and the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda to be World Heritage Sites. But these habitats are increasingly coming under pressure as regional conflicts cause an influx of refugees. Some clear forest land for agriculture or fuel, or else poach for food have reduced the living space left for the gorillas. That is why the WHC has classified the sites in the Congo as World Heritage sites in danger.

Wildlife workers on the ground are limited in what they can do. By area these habitats total more than eight hundred thousand hectares, with long boundaries across extremely inaccessible and seldom-mapped terrain. UNESCO and ESA agreed last October to begin a pilot scheme using satellite data to monitor the changes of land use in the gorilla habitats and to identify possible environmental indicators.

Radar instruments on board satellites such as ESA`s ERS-2 and Envisat can pierce through the near-total cloud cover of the rainforest to identify illegal forest clearance or settlements, data which can be integrated with ground observations provided by organisations working in the area and passed to local authorities.

“The case study selected to demonstrate the potential use of Space Observations is challenging due to lack of maps, weather conditions, high quality surveys and reference ground measuments,” says Luigi Fusco from the ESA Earth Observation Application Department. If this pilot scheme is a success, the plan is to extend it to the monitoring of other UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are more than 700 such sites worldwide.”

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Luigi Fusco ESA

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