How satellite technology is helping save the chimpanzee.

Fewer than 350,000 chimpanzees remain in the wild, down sharply from the two million believed to have roamed the rainforests of central Africa only a century ago.

These are estimates only, of course, but one doesn’t need a degree in earth science — or statistics — to know that habitat loss, illegal logging and the bushmeat trade are a continuing threat to one of humankind’s closest genetic relatives.

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

What is less known — until now — is that a recent, unique collaboration between the Jane Goodall Institute and NASA is boosting knowledge of what’s happening and, more importantly, how and where it’s happening.

Behavioural scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other groups have being doing a credible job of tracking known family groups of chimpanzees, ever since Jane Goodall made her first visit to Tanzania’s Gombe region in 1960. Conservationists have mapped both chimpanzees’ territories — a family group’s immediate neighbhourhood — and their home ranges, the area chimpanzees roam outside their territories in their search for food, potential mates and other family groups.

In orbit, meanwhile, NASA has recorded the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute changes to the earth’s surface for the past 44 years. Some of the most technologically advanced satellites have been placed in orbit in just the past two years.

Until recently, conservation groups and NASA worked at cross purproses. Information was gathered, but not shared. Thanks to the Goodall Institute, a new program of cooperation now makes it possible for primate researchers to monitor the environmental effects of habitat loss on individual family groups on a day-by-day basis.

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

This is important to chimpanzees’ future survival in the wild because behavioural scientists can now predict with a degree of certainty which family groups will be affected by proposed development projects, and how. The shared information can also be used as evidence in court cases brought against illegal loggers and rogue mining operations.

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

The bad news is that habitat loss is visible from space. The good news is that, by knowing how, when and where and environmental destruction is taking place, law-enforcement agencies and regulators now have real, tangible information on which to act.

The Landsat series of satellites, a joint mission of NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has been providing a continuous record of earth’s land use for more than four decades now. Images taken from orbit have been made available cost-free to the public: the Landsat program is a truly democratic, people-driven program.

“NASA satellite data helps us understand what it means to be a chimp by overlaying distribution of the habitat with chimpanzee behaviuor and ranging data," Lilian Pintea, vice-president of conservation science for the Goodall Institute, said in a statement for the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center.

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

Chimpanzees once lived in an uninterrupted belt of woodland rain forests from Lake Tanganyika westward through Uganda and the Congo Basin.

In the 1970s, little more than a decade after Goodall first arrived in the region, the forest started to be cut down.

Increased population growth, driven in part by rural poverty, has exacerbated forest clearing for farmland and charcoal production.

The Goodall Institute is using the Landsat images to convince villagers in the area that conservation is in their best interests.

Goodall, now in her 80s, is still active with her namesake institute, though her primary role is now focused on education, fundraising and lecture tours around the world. She still tries to return to Gombe once a year, though. She’s noticed a direct effect the Landsat program has had on local opinion.

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

“It was exciting to see the impact of these images on the villagers,” Goodall said in a statement for the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center.

Villagers could identify landmarks and sacred places in the satellite imagery, she added.

“It was like a piece of reality dropped magically from the sky.”

If the chimpanzee is to be saved in the wild, it will require concerted efforts on the ground, not just from space.

For now, though, the satellite images are proving to be a game changer for improving local conservation efforts.