Illegal mining in Congo wiping out gorilla populations

Illegal mining in Congo wiping out gorilla populations

Fewer than 3,800 Grauer gorillas still live in the wild, down from 17,000 in 1998. (Image: Screenshot from YouTube video)

The population of Grauer's gorillas, the world's largest subspecies, has dropped by 77% in the last 18 years due mainly to illegal mining for coltan and other minerals and the civil war that hit the Democratic Republic of Congo, an extensive report published this week shows.

Fewer than 3,800 of these gorillas still live in the wild, down from 17,000 in 1998, which according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, Flora and Fauna International and the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature, should place the Grauer’s subspecies on the international “critically endangered” list.

The experts believe that violence in the area, such as the Rwandan genocide in 1994 and later civil war in Congo, paired with the establishment of mining camps and the growth of hunting to feed miners, have all contributed to the population decline of the endangered animal.

Illegal miners in Congo are after highly demanded minerals, including coltan, which is key in the production of cell phones and electronics. They often turn to local wildlife for food.

The report recommends regulating artisanal mineral extraction sites, disarming illegal miners and creating new protected areas, among other solutions.

“The crash in the gorilla population is a consequence of the human tragedy that has played out in eastern DRC,” Jefferson Hall, a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and co-author of the report, said in a statement.

Hall noted that the team found evidence of bush meat hunting at nearly every mine site they surveyed.

Illegal mining in Congo wiping out gorilla populations

Grauer's gorilla Ninja. (Image courtesy of Jefferson Hall / Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute)

“Most of these artisanal mining sites are remote, which means that the miners often turn to local wildlife for food, regardless of conservation status,” he added.

The Grauer’s gorilla lives solely in eastern DRC and can weigh up to 400 pounds.

Mountain gorillas, a closely related subspecies, have also been impacted, and fewer than 700 of them are thought to live in the wild these days.

Artisanal mining often involves the illegal extraction of minerals by hand or other makeshift methods. Other than gold, amateur miners are looking for other highly demanded riches, including diamonds, copper, tin, cobalt and coltan. The latest two are key for the production of cell phones and electronics.