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The great gorilla wipeout

By Nick Funnel

Illegal hunting is threatening the critically endangered eastern gorilla, which is scarily just one step away from extinction.

They are one of humankind’s closest living relatives. They live in family groups and, far from their fearsome King Kong-style image, they are mostly gentle souls who subsist on a vegetarian diet. As the males of the species age, the hair down the saddle of the back turns a striking white, much like our hair grows grey as we get older, earning them their famous nickname ‘silverbacks’. This is the eastern gorilla and, despite our similarities to them, we have now pushed them to the brink of extinction.

This year the largest primates on the planet – adult males can weigh over 200 kilograms and reach heights of over 1.7 metres – became one of the latest animals to join the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) critically endangered list. Inhabiting the remote rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda, the species – Latin name Gorilla beringei – has seen its population numbers plunge by 70 per cent in recent years, the victim of illegal hunting and habitat destruction. Shockingly, barely 5,000 of the apes, which are divided into two subspecies – Grauer’s gorilla and the rarer mountain gorilla – remain.

Grauer's gorillas are a good target... they provide such a large quantity of bushmeat.

At the root of the problem is artisanal mining and humankind’s ever-growing demand for high-tech gadgets. In eastern DRC, coltan and other valuable minerals used in the manufacture of mobile phones, computers and other electronic devices, have been illegally extracted for years. The lucrative mines often form a handy way for the militias that roam the unstable area to fund their activities. These illegal mines are frequently set up in remote areas where supplies are scarce, causing workers to resort to hunting local wildlife for food. The area’s large Grauer’s gorillas make a particularly good target because they provide such a large quantity of bushmeat and are easy to catch because they move in groups. At the same time the ravages caused by the mining are also destroying their habitat, while illegal poaching is also having an impact on numbers.

The eastern gorilla can be found only in small areas of rainforest in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Rwanda Civil War in the 1990s had a devastating effect on the population. A recent dramatic drop in numbers is due to war, deforestation and mining for minerals.
The eastern gorilla can be found only in small areas of rainforest in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The Rwanda Civil War in the 1990s had a devastating effect on the population. A recent dramatic drop in numbers is due to war, deforestation and mining for minerals.

It all now means that of the around 17,000 Grauer’s gorillas – formerly known as the eastern lowland gorilla – that existed in 1995, only an estimated 3,800 remain, according to a report issued by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Fauna & Flora International earlier this year. Numbers of the even more at-risk mountain gorilla – which lives in the Virunga Massif, an area that covers parts of DRC, Uganda and Rwanda, and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park – have bounced back in recent years, but still only reach around 880.

What can I do?

The possibility that these majestic primates could disappear is very real. Urgent action needs to be taken. The report issued by the Wildlife Conservation Society and Fauna & Flora International urges that manufacturers of mobile phones, computers and other electronic equipment are more transparent about the minerals they use in devices and ensure that they come from mines that are not linked to conflicts in the area and whose workers do not hunt bushmeat.

Illegal mining in DRC produces a significant amount of the world’s minerals – it also supplies most of the world’s coltan, used in mobile phones and other small electronic devices. The Enough project and Amnesty International are raising awareness about conflict minerals and a Fairphone made from ethically sourced materials is also available. With an international focus directed on this issue, hopefully the magnificent mountain gorillas, who have unwittingly become caught up in this tragedy, can be saved.

Photograph © Alessandro Tramonti

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