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Award-winning satellite ecosystem protection project showcased to Kenyan President

Forest Alert satellite system protects against illegal logging in Kenya

An award-winning satellite project developed by researchers at the University of Leicester with support from the National Centre for Earth Observation has been showcased as part President Kenyatta’s visit to London, where he marked the UK-Kenya partnership on climate change.

The UK Government presented the Forest Alert system, which is currently being rolled out across Kenya in order to protect the country’s threatened ecosystems, to President Uhuru Kenyatta when he met with COP26 President-Designate Alok Sharma at a special event at Kew Gardens on Tuesday, 27 July.

Developed by Professor Heiko Balzter, at the National Centre for Earth Observation and Director of the Centre of Landscape and Climate Research (CLCR) at the University of Leicester, and Geology and the Environment researchers Dr Ciaran Robb and Dr Pedro Rodriguez-Veiga, Forest Alert is a system that sends out rapid deforestation alerts to a mobile app and enables communication with thousands of app users in the field via a central dashboard. This enables effective protection of forest assets from illegal logging.

The system provides near-real-time deforestation alerts – and unprecedented spatial resolution of 10 metres allows detection of small-scale forest degradation and selective logging of single large trees in tropical rainforests.

Forest Alert detects illegal logging via satellite technology

Professor Balzter said: “In the Centre for Landscape and Climate Research at the University of Leicester, we have developed a near real-time forest cover change early-warning system together with the Kenya Forest Service. It integrates cloud computing, mobile technology and community participation to provide a rapid-response forest monitoring system for Kenya.

“Near-real-time deforestation alerts are sent out whenever a new satellite image is acquired, up to every five days from the Sentinel-2 A and B satellites, within 24 hours of imaging. They are downloaded, processed and turned into actionable forest information automatically.”

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change includes an international initiative on ‘Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation’ (REDD+) whose aim includes protection of carbon stocks and biodiversity in threatened ecosystems around the world. This way, carbon stays in the forest and is not released to the air, where it could lead to further global warming. 

One of the main constraints for the successful implementation of REDD+ that has been identified by policy makers, investors, financiers and scientists is the need for robust and objective Measurement, Reporting and Verification (MRV) systems.

Mr Jamlek Ndambiri of Kenya Forest Service said “The Forest Alert system has made our forest rangers more accountable, helped us manage our rangers more effectively, and helped ensure that we arrest forest destruction almost at the time that it happens”.

The University of Leicester is internationally renowned for its Space and Earth Observation research. It has been recognised that satellite technology is the most feasible way to regularly monitor the world’s forests in a timely fashion.

Professor Balzter added: “The powerful integration of satellite images with mobile phone apps and big data analytics provides a step change in the ability of organisations to respond effectively to the loss of forest land and a breakthrough in the fight against deforestation.

“The system has been designed with the needs of user organisations at the forefront of our thinking. The Kenya Forest Service and the forestry stakeholder organisations there have helped in defining what it is the service needs to deliver. We are also grateful to our industry partner Ukall Ltd in Nairobi with whom we have solved the integration of satellite information with a powerful app-based communication system.”

The work was supported by the project ‘REDD+ Monitoring Services with Satellite Earth Observation – Community Forest Monitoring Pilot’ at CLCR, funded by NERC, and Forests2020, funded by the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme.

In order to continue their work alongside NCEO and other industry partners, CLCR is moving into Space Park Leicester, a £100 million research, innovation and teaching hub which recently opened in April.