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Wednesday, 3 October, 2001, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
Space age plan to save gorillas
Mountain gorilla BBC
There are only 650 mountain gorillas left
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

Gorillas in Africa will be monitored from space, under new plans to protect their habitat.

Officials from the European Space Agency (Esa) hope to use space technology to keep an eye on the forests where the endangered animals live.

Antarctic ice shelf Esa
ERS 2 took this image of the Larsen Antarctic ice shelf
Earth-observing satellites are capable of peering through cloud to send back images of areas of deforestation in all weather and at night.

Esa intends to supply the data to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) to help protect the animals.

"The satellites we have are our eyes in the sky," Franco Bonacina, an Esa spokesperson, told BBC News Online.

"We can improve our vision and the instruments we have in our hands to make the environment more liveable for the gorillas in this particular case."

Environmental spy

One such satellite - ERS 2 - which was launched in 1995, has already sent back a wealth of environmental data about the planet.

The satellite uses radar to take images of the Earth. Areas of forest that have been removed by human activity will be visible from space.

"You can see new areas where gorillas can populate," said Mr Bonacina. "Or where they should try to install themselves because human interaction has taken away their food and their habitat."

Gorilla factfile
Mountain gorillas live in the highland rainforests of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Uganda
There are two lowland subspecies of gorilla, which are also endangered
One group is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the other, Western lowland gorillas, are found throughout Central Africa
The mountain gorillas of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, are critically endangered.

They are under threat from poaching and loss of their forest habitat. Only about 650 mountain gorillas remain, a population that may not be large enough to maintain genetic diversity.

The first pilot study, to monitor gorilla habitat in Central and East Africa, is planned for next year. Esa is seeking other countries interested in collaborating on the project.

See also:

18 May 01 | Africa
Congo gorilla numbers halved
20 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Great apes in peril
20 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
UN call to save key forests
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