Images from NASA satellites are helping to save chimpanzees.

Although many people immediately think of space travel when they hear about NASA, the organization has done a lot of excellent research that has been used by others to explore climate change and other ecological changes. Take, for example, the agency’s ability to visualize climate zones, plant cover, and habitats from its satellites in the atmosphere.

This information has been used to study chimpanzee habitats, which have been shrinking over the last 45 years to a startling degree. In fact, while there were about two million chimpanzees a century ago, there are only about 345,000 today. While poaching has had a big impact on humanity’s closest cousins, land use has been the real culprit.

This is easily seen when comparing satellite images provided by NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey Landsat. From space, it’s easy to see that changing land use has devastated chimpanzee habitats. Chimpanzees needs forested land in which to live, forage, and nest. They are also pretty territorial creatures, which makes it hard for them to move when the forest where they live starts getting chopped down.

Agricultural use is one of the main culprits, as acre after acre of forest is cut down to grow crops or raise livestock. But logging and the charcoal industry have done a lot of damage as well. The result is that, outside of Gombe National Park along Lake Tanganyika, the lack of forests is notable and dramatic, leaving chimps with an ever-smaller range. Scientists from the Jane Goodall Institute are now using these images to work with local people to try and get them to plan land use that better preserves chimp habitats.

This image compares available chimpanzee habitat in 1972 with available habitat in 1999.

Landsat images compare the forest cover change between 1972 and 1999 in the region around Gombe National Park. Credits: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualiztion Studio/Cindy Starr

And the satellite images have been a game changer.

“It was really exciting to see the impact of these images on the villagers,” said renowned chimp researcher Jane Goodall. The villagers could identify landmarks and sacred places in the satellite photos. “It was like a piece of reality dropped magically from the sky,” she added.

But keeping more of the forest around wouldn’t just benefit chimpanzees.

Cutting down forests changes climates, leaving areas warmer and more susceptible to flash floods, which can turn into dangerous mudslides on sloping ground. There are also numerous resources that, once the forest is gone, are no longer available, such as honey, game to hunt, and valuable tree species.

The satellite imagery makes it easier to show how much things have changed, which will hopefully make a big difference, and help conservationists better plan to help chimpanzee populations turn around.