African Villagers Use Satellite Data to Help Save Wild Chimpanzees

NASA used to send chimps to space. Now, it’s satellites are helping save chimps on Earth.
January 30, 2017, 1:00pm
Wild chimps in Uganda. Image: Alain Houle/Harvard University

A century ago, an estimated two million wild chimpanzees thrived in the dense forests of central Africa. But steady human encroachment into chimp territory, along with poaching, has caused the population to dwindle to a quarter of its historic size, with under 345,000 projected to be left in their native habitats today.

Given that chimpanzees are a keystone species and the closest extant relative to humans, their rapid decline in the wild has sparked widespread concern. In response, NASA and the Jane Goodall Institute partnered on a project that aims to use space-down views of chimpanzee habitats to guide local activists involved in conservation. The early results of this ongoing collaboration were recently in this short documentary.


Satellite imagery from NASA's veteran Landsat constellation, which is the longest continuous Earth observation project in history, bears witness the severe deforestation and habitat destruction that has occurred in chimp territories between 1972 and 1999. Lilian Pintea, the vice president of conservation science for the Jane Goodall Institute, cites one particularly sobering example: Tanzania's Gombe National Park, shown in an animation here based on Landsat data.

Image: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

"Chimpanzees are in crisis," Pintea said in a statement. "NASA satellite data helps us understand what it means to be a chimp by overlaying distribution of the habitat with the chimpanzee behavior and ranging data."

Another satellite view of Gombe National Park. Image: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

With that information, conservationists can optimize the best strategies for protecting vulnerable ranges from further fragmentation or destruction by the human population boom that surrounds them. Some examples include avoiding development of new communities near important chimp feeding and nesting grounds, and allowing for forest corridor regrowth so that disparate patches of habitat can be connected.

READ MORE: This Is How Satellites Will Pinpoint Earth's Most Vulnerable Ecosystems

According to Goodall, the use of Landsat data and GPS-enabled devices for chimpanzee protection has been embraced by African villagers interested in restoring those lost habitats—for themselves, as well as for chimpanzees.

"It was really exciting to see the impact of these images on the villagers," she said in the NASA short. "To see them identifying their sacred places, and how it enabled them to do their land use management plans. "It was like a piece of reality dropped magically from the sky."

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