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Mapping and remote sensing technology can be used by developing countries to conserve forests and biodiversity, say experts.

Such 'geospatial' technology is helping African countries to conserve forests and identify areas in need of intervention, said scientists at a meeting organised by the Society for Conservation GIS-Kenya in Nairobi, Kenya, last week (20 July).

Geospatial technologies include global positioning systems (GPS) for capturing basic location data, remote sensing, which uses aerial photography, and geographic information systems (GIS), which analyse data to create maps.

GIS expert Peter Ndunda, is currently running a mapping program with the nongovernmental Green Belt Movement in the Mount Kenya and Aberdares forests.  He told SciDev.Net that his project has mapped these regions to determine loss in forest cover over time.

"Having identified forested and non-forested areas, we have mapped out areas that need urgent intervention. With support from local communities, we have planted trees which we are monitoring using high-resolution images to determine their survival," he said.

According to Ndunda, the project has resulted in increased forest cover, improved soil quality and better management of water resources. Planting trees in higher ground, from which water flows down to rivers, helps stabilise the local climate and regulate water flows.

He added that by rehabilitating the forests, ecosystems have been preserved. And involving local communities in forest management has provided them with an income, along with education in the sustainable use of watersheds.

Ndunda says the project will soon be extended to the Cherengany, Mau and Mount Elgon forests in Kenya, as well as to the Congo Basin forest.

Forest communities themselves are also using technology to monitor their forest. In anticipation of payments under the Clean Development Mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol, communities near the Aberdares and Mount Kenya forests are assessing the number, species and width of trees, along with the amount of canopy cover, to determine the amount of carbon sequestered.

The Kenya-based Regional Centre for Mapping of Resources for Development is involved in a project with the United Nations Environment Programme using GPS to map forested and non-forested areas in the Mount Kenya forest area.

They are mapping vegetation, forest cover, infrastructure and tourist attractions to enhance sustainable use of forest resources and for use in community education.

The National Museums of Kenya are also using geospatial technology to monitor bird biodiversity and elsewhere in Africa, national park services in Mauritania and Tanzania are using satellite imaging to examine crop-damaging locust population levels.