New space research to survey chimpanzee habitats

Chimpanzee 'Mpilinitu' at the Tchimpounga Nature Reserve in the Republic of the Congo.

New space research at the University of Leicester is set to use remote sensing techniques to survey the habitats of endangered chimpanzees in the Republic of the Congo.

Leicester researchers have signed a memorandum of understanding with the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) and secured Research England funding to explore how remote sensing data, combined with machine learning approaches, can help to map, characterise and develop further understanding about the habitats of chimpanzees in the Tchimpounga Nature Reserve.

The collaboration seeks to advance a number of projects that will provide critical scientific insights about the forest and woodlands of Tchimpounga, in the Congo Basin, which is the home of the Tchimpounga Chimpanzee Rehabilitation Center managed by JGI in collaboration with the Republic of Congo’s Ministry of Waters and Forests.

Chimpanzees are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List as an endangered species. The Jane Goodall Institute has, for more than 40 years, worked to advance scientific and public understanding of chimpanzees, as well as their conservation through community-driven approaches. JGI’s work in Tchimpounga represents a major part of their footprint in all of these areas.

Terrestrial laser scan of a typical forest, of the kind to be used in the Tchimpounga Nature Reserve.

Professor Kevin Tansey, of the School of Geography, Geology and the Environment, will work closely with colleagues at Space Park Leicesterthe first phase of which is now complete – in supporting the research and knowledge exchange programme. He said: “It is a huge honour and privilege to have the opportunity to work with the Jane Goodall Institute.

“The timing allows us to develop the project scope within the context of moving into Space Park Leicester where we can talk with our industry partners who are experts at data collection from drones and aircraft.

“The funding also allows us to recruit a number of our Masters and undergraduate students to short term internships so they can gain important project planning and data analysis skills.”

Lilian Pintea, Vice-President of Conservation Science at the Jane Goodall Institute USA said: “JGI’s vision for the application of science and technology is to explore, innovate, and discover new solutions, technologies, and tools to accelerate the pace and scale of our conservation impact.

“We have been creating research-implementation spaces where scientists, companies, students, communities, policymakers and others could have a dialogue, collaborate, and convert innovative technologies and data into better conservation decisions.”

The projects will focus on the use of laser scanner data, sometimes referred to as LiDAR. Professor Tansey explained: “A laser scanner collects millions of points or hits from objects, natural or constructed, in our environment. Whether placed on a drone or an aircraft for the top down view, or mounted on a tripod or strapped to your back for the ground view, the eye-safe laser scanner points are stored forever. They are then rendered in 3D and classified.

“We will develop clever algorithms to look for structural features that are associated with their nests and, who knows, we may be able to spot the chimpanzee’s themselves. Integration of these data sets with high resolution optical data with short return interval, such as those from Maxar or PLANET can help us develop forest monitoring systems in the future.”

The funding that comes from the University of Leicester’s QR Global Challenges Research Fund (Research England), will support project planning, the collection and analysis of data from a pilot UK site and the delivery of online courses and workshops on laser scanning with JGI and their local partners.