Andreas Späth

Your cellphone and gorillas – a bloody connection?

2016-04-11 13:55

Andreas Wilson-Späth

You might think there is absolutely nothing linking your cellular telephone to the fate of the world’s gorillas. Sadly, there may just be.

The connection is a rare mineral called coltan, some constituents of which are used in the manufacturing of cellphones and other electronic devices. Coltan is relatively abundant in parts of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in a region that just happens to be home to a significant portion of Africa’s gorilla population.

The area is being extensively mined for coltan and other metals and mineral resources, including gold, cassiterite (tin), diamonds and tungsten, often by small artisanal miners and frequently in an unregulated or outright illegal fashion. Many of the militia groups operating in the region since the start of the Congolese civil war in the 1990s have financed their activities via income from such mines.

The miners themselves need to be fed and that has lead to an increase in the local trade in ‘bushmeat’ – meat from wild animals hunted in the area. Gorillas are among the more highly valued bushmeat species, so if your cellphone contains coltan that originated in the DRC, it may just have been dug out of the ground by people eating (among other things) gorilla meat.

Of course there are many other reasons for the plight of the great apes in this part of the world – the expansion of agricultural activities and the habitat destruction that goes hand in hand with that, limited formal wildlife protection, large numbers of internally displaced people and refugees from across the border, the illegal trade in exotic animals, and so on.

A report [] that has just been released sheds some light on the dire situation of the DRC’s remaining gorillas.

The authors evaluate the status of Grauer’s gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) in its natural range in the eastern DRC between the Maiko National Park in the north and the Kabobo massif in the south, and the Lualaba River in the west and the country’s eastern border. They also considered the situation of eastern chimpanzees in the same region.

In case you’re wondering, Grauer’s gorilla is the most populous of Africa’s four gorilla subspecies and was previously known as the eastern lowland gorilla. It is endemic to this region, meaning that it occurs nowhere else on the planet.

The results of the survey are shocking:

- The historic range of the Grauer’s gorilla used to extend over some 52,000 square kilometres, but was reduced to around 21,600 square kilometres by 2008. The current report covered just under 19,000 square kilometres, but within this area, individual gorilla populations are highly fragmented. Some local populations may already have become extinct or so decimated as to have gone undetected.

-  The researchers used field observations and statistical methods to estimate that only 3800 Grauer’s gorillas remain in the wild across their range. That represents a devastating decline of between 77 and 93 percent.

- Approximately 37,740 eastern chimpanzees are believed to survive in the studied area, an estimated 22 to 45 percent decline.

The Grauer’s gorilla is protected under DRC law, classified as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of threatened species, and listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), meaning that it cannot be traded commercially, and yet it is steadily slipping towards extinction. According to the report, it is in “severe crisis”.

"As one of our closest living relatives, we have a duty to protect this gorilla from extinction," says co-author Stuart Nixon. "Unless greater investment and effort is made, we face the very real threat that this incredible primate will disappear from many parts of its range in the next five years. It's vital that we act fast."

He and his colleagues argue that the Grauer’s gorilla should be elevated to a status of Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List and they suggest a number of urgent interventions, including increased regulation of mining activities, the closure of mines inside national parks, increased security in nature reserves, the formal declaration of new conservation areas, the creation of alternative sources of income for people in the region, and more.

Is your cellphone implicated in the disappearance of these animals along with other threatened species? I’m not suggesting that we stop using the things – I’m as hooked to mine as everyone else – but surely it’s time that we ask manufacturers if they are sourcing their raw materials, including coltan, ethically.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

Send your comments to Andreas

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