Rediscovering a Forgotten Landscape

By Tammie Hall

Using state-of-the-art geospatial technology, members of the Canadian Ape Alliance are mapping one of the last uncharted wilderness regions on the planet, with an eye to protecting the bonobo, one of our closest evolutionary relatives.

An okapi, an animal that looks a bit like a zebra, is found in the region. Photo courtesy Kim Gjerstad.

Located in the remote southeast Democratic Republic of Congo, the 56,000-square-kilometer tract of forest remains little known to outsiders. The biological importance of the region - called Tshuapa-Lomami-Lualaba, or TL2 - has been hinted at for more than four decades. But today scientists are conducting inventories within forest sectors, focusing on monitoring the presence of the endangered bonobo chimpanzee, as well as a rich variety of monkey species, okapi, Congo peacock, large ungulates, elephants and much more.

"The world has a rare opportunity here to preserve and protect from development what is almost untouched natural habitat," says Dr. Kerry Bowman, founder of the Canadian Ape Alliance. "We believe that once we demonstrate the level of endangered life within TL2, we'll have a good case for the preservation of part or maybe all of the area."

In partnership with the Democratic Republic of Congo's Lukuru Wildlife Research Foundation (LWRF), members of the Toronto-based wildlife conservation group are combining sparse preexisting data - some of them dating back to the 19th century - with the researchers' daily discoveries. The results are providing real-time digital mapping support and analysis to those in the wilderness.

As the expedition makes its way up river in a dugout canoe, the Canadians are in contact by satellite phone, helping the team track their position, log their discoveries, and decide where to explore next.
A team leaves a camp for a 15-day excursion in the Tshuapa Lomami forest. Photo courtesy Ashley Vosper.

In 2005, the Alliance received an ESRI Conservation Grant. Along with generous hardware and equipment support from Trimble Corporation and WESA, the Alliance's GIS project team is working closely with LWRF to develop an accurate and comprehensive base map for immediate and future field conservation applications.

Existing geospatial data for the region are very limited and general in nature, with basic hydrology, topography and cultural features available from a variety of sources (CARPE, FAO, UNEP, UNDP, UNOCHA, WRI).

"Right now, our GIS focus is rebuilding a hydrographic layer for the mapping, using hard-copy maps ranging in date from 1880s to post-2000, plus satellite imagery and other earlier digital map data," says Nick January, GIS Project Manager with the Canadian Ape Alliance. "That data is being supplied to field survey teams on the ground in remote spots through satellite phone ftp downloads, and giving them much-needed geographic information for traveling through the region."

Team members drinking water from a liane, a climbing plant found in wetter forests. Photo courtesy Ashley Vosper.

The field survey teams are also conducting "ground truthing" to verify land classifications obtained through satellite imagery, and field training will be executed in 2008 with the GIS/GPS components.

Data collected in the field or at occasional base camps using mobile integrated GPS/GIS units (ESRI ArcPad on Trimble GeoXTs) will be incorporated into a larger-scale GIS for storage, maintenance, analysis, cartographic output and report production. In the long-term, the collected field data will substantially increase the quality and quantity of geospatial data for the region.

The project is expected to continue for at least two more years.

Published Wednesday, November 28th, 2007

Written by Tammie Hall

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