Apr. 14, 2000 A partnership involving conservation organizations and universities on two different continents is bringing new technology to bear on efforts to protect the endangered mountain gorillas popularized by the movie "Gorillas in the Mist." The effort will put remote sensing technology into the hands of field scientists and trackers working to protect the gorillas, while helping the nation of Rwanda rebuild its national university and recover from a devastating 1994 war and genocide.
The project, which carries on the work of naturalist Dian Fossey, will also demonstrate how advanced technologies can help in the struggle to protect other endangered species.
"Our first goal is to use modern-day technology to bring new clout to field conservation, ecosystem management and endangered species protection," explained Clare Richardson, president of the Atlanta-based Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. "Because we are a field conservation organization, it is imperative that we aggressively pursue more efficient ways to collect data, then have experts available to analyze that data, especially as it applies to habitat."
Habitat loss poses the single greatest threat to the mountain gorillas, Richardson says. The most densely populated nation in Africa, Rwanda today struggles with the task of resettling more than a million people in the aftermath of war. The need for more crop land, as well as timber for homes and cooking, threatens the protected reserves and introduces human disease into the fragile gorilla habitat in the Virungas Mountain Range area.
The first applications of the new technology, therefore, will be to assess the existing gorilla habitat, explains Nickolas Faust, principal research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute. Georgia Tech researchers will work with Dr. H. Dieter Steklis, chief scientist for the Fossey Fund, to combine geographic information system data from satellites with hyperspectral data gathered by a special aerial camera and demographic information recorded on the ground. That will give the researchers and Rwandan authorities a measure of how many gorillas the area can support, and establish a baseline for documenting future habitat loss.
"The carrying capacity of the area can be assessed by examining the quantity of preferred gorilla food," Steklis explained. "Based on that, we can determine how many gorillas the habitat can sustain. This would provide the park authorities with information that would help them manage the National Park."
Slightly more than 600 mountain gorillas survive in Central East Africa, ranging across national parks controlled by three different nations: Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. Security concerns in the border region over the last few years curtailed regular patrols of the gorilla habitat, but the trackers and scientists from the Fossey Fund's Karisoke Nature Center are now back in the Virungas with armed escorts.
The trackers will soon receive additional training to use the new technology. Working with researchers and field scientists, they will break new ground in combining geographic information system (GIS) data with global positioning system (GPS) technology and wireless communications. Ultimately, wireless communications systems tied into the Internet will allow quick transfer of data from field scientists to researchers anywhere in the world.
"The idea of tying GIS, GPS and communications together is a fairly new concept that we hope to explore through this collaboration," Faust explained. "We will be bringing in technology that hasn't traditionally been used in field conservation."
The Fossey Fund's geographic information system and remote sensing program, begun in 1992, got a boost recently from an Idaho company, Earth Search Sciences, Inc. (ESSI). As part of a National Geographic television project last year, ESSI gathered hyperspectral data -- high-resolution images recorded simultaneously in multiple wavelengths. This information provides rich new detail about vegetation in the area, even allowing scientists to distinguish individual plant species.
The partnership may also get help from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), whose Digital Earth initiative seeks to make the agency's vast data resource, powerful imaging tools and 25 years of expertise available to field scientists.
Using GIS and other data, Georgia Tech also created a virtual Virungan environment on its Atlanta campus, using a three-screen projector system that allows visitors to immerse themselves in a three-dimensional simulation. By allowing a group of people to share the experience of moving through the ecosystem and examining its components, the Georgia Tech- developed system offers a powerful tool for visualizing the potential impacts of change, Faust adds.
Though the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International focuses on conservation of the gorillas, the well-being of the animals cannot be separated from the well-being of the country in which they live. For that reason, the partnership has taken on broader goals.
"We would also like to take certain elements of these technology applications to the countries in which we work so that we are building scientific and technical infrastructure there," said Richardson. "Ultimately, we want to have centers for GIS and remote sensing dotted all around the globe."
To further that goal, Faust and collaborators at Georgia Tech's Center for Geographic Information Systems spent five weeks in February and March teaching two officials from the National University of Rwanda about GIS and remote sensing. Back at their university, the Rwandans will pass on their knowledge to additional faculty and students, using GIS workstations provided by Georgia Tech through the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA).
"We will set up the first center for GIS and remote sensing at the university, and our goal will be to train others in this new technology," said Dr. Safari Bonfils, dean of science and engineering at the National University of Rwanda. "The students will use this technology for applications in agriculture, social science and the sciences. This will be very helpful for our country, especially for planners in the government ministries."
Future plans call for collaboration with Zoo Atlanta to share knowledge gained from the research with broader audiences.
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