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The most advanced civilian space radar can penetrate the Earth's ice, sand and vegetation. It sees with ease through mist, and this week NASA hopes to peer through the mists of Rwanda to track the imperiled mountain gorilla.

Human trackers who normally keep tabs on the foraging gorillas are gone, evacuated from the Dian Fossey research camp in April when the tiny African nation imploded in an orgy of slaughter.The $366 million radar system made its orbital debut that same month aboard the space shuttle Endeavour, scanning the fog-bound volcanoes of Rwanda, Zaire and Uganda where the gorillas live.

Naturalist Fossey spent almost 20 years studying the gorillas and protecting them from poachers, who cut off heads and hands for cruel trophies. She was killed nine years ago by a machete-wielding intruder who was never caught.

The poachers' threat has diminished, but now the gorillas' shrinking habitat is being squeezed by tens of thousands of Rwandan refugees. Space researchers hope to ease their plight with fresh radar images sent from Endeavour on a 10-day environmental mission that begins with Thursday's launch.

"The ability to do this remotely is not something I think she would have ever imagined," said H. Dieter Steklis, executive director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and a primatologist at Rutgers University. "I think she would have imagined we would always be somehow yoked to using traditional techniques, that the only way to physically protect gorillas was by having people out there.

"While we still do that, and it's important," he said, "this adds a dimension that allows us to better manage the resource, to actually plan a conservation strategy."

Steklis plans to overlay the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's images with data collected from navigation satellites and standard topographical maps to create an extremely detailed overview of the terrain the gorillas roam to ascertain their preferred habitat.

In the four months since ethnic slaughter forced millions of Rwandans to flee either government Hutu forces or rebel Tutsis, hordes of displaced Rwandans have encroached on the gorillas' territory, Steklis said.

Refugees have tramped through the rain forest en route to Zaire and back. Some, afraid of disease in the camps but terrified of execution if they return home, have built crude shelters nearby, cutting down trees and stands of bamboo for firewood, Steklis said.

There's no evidence they are killing any mountain gorillas for food, he emphasized.

"We are quite excited about the possibility that in this current flyover we might actually be able to detect . . . the negative impact on the forest," Steklis said.

Fewer than 650 mountain gorillas survive. The last census was in 1989; Rwandan rebels became active in the countryside and border areas the next year.

"The one thing we worry about and have no data for are the effects of the war," Steklis said. "Regions of the forest, we have heard from time to time, have been (land) mined since 1990. We have not been able to get into those regions at all."

That's where space radar comes in.

Aircraft and traditional satellites are virtually useless for mapping central Africa's mountainous rain forests because of the constant mist and clouds.