An endangered gorilla subspecies is being pushed towards extinction as mineral miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) hunt it for bushmeat. Concerns have now been raised that the global technology supply chain may be accelerating its demise. The Grauer’s gorilla, the world’s largest primate, is only found in the eastern DRC, but decades of illegal hunting and mining, coupled with civil unrest and habitat loss, have pushed it to the brink.
Conservationists are now calling for ‘bushmeat free’ to be included alongside ‘conflict free’ as a way of ensuring minerals used in the global supply chain are sourced from mines that don’t kill endangered animals. According to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), its numbers have fallen 77 per cent in the last two decades, with fewer than 4,000 now remaining.
Its hunting for bushmeat has been driven by the proliferation of small mineral mines deep in the forest, according to Andrew Plumptre, director of the organisation’s Albertine Rift Program, which operates in the DRC, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia. The mines are usually controlled by armed rebels who work where government forces struggle to reach.
“These mines tend to be located away from where people are, which means they’ve moved deep into the areas where the remaining gorillas tend to be found,” said Plumptre. “And because they’re far from villages they can’t access food very easily and so they tend to hunt around the mines for bushmeat to survive.” Miners who shoot at gorilla groups will almost always be attacked by the silverback as he tries to defend his group. If killed, the absence of a dominant male can cause the group to splinter, putting it at risk of attacks from other males and predators such as leopards.
The WCS is calling on partner organisations and governments to introduce stronger boundaries around protected areas, better-tackle illegal mining, disarm militia groups and find alternative sources of income for local people who depend on the mines.Consumer electronics firms are also being lobbied to only purchase from mines that are bushmeat as well as conflict free.
Despite warnings the gorilla subspecies could go extinct within years, recent efforts to protect pockets of the Grauer’s gorilla population have proved successful. A report released by WCS in June found the population in one part of Kahuzi-Biega National Park had risen from 181 to 213 over a five-year period. The WCS said the success was an encouraging sign and proof that increased investment could save the gorillas.
Grauer’s gorillas, which can weigh up to 400 pounds, are closely related to the better-known mountain gorilla. As they live mostly on the ground and in relatively large groups, they can be easily tracked and hunted for bushmeat, Plumptre explained. But for those hunting them, there’s little option.
“We’ve found most people don’t actually want to mine,” said Plumptre. “They tend to be young men who are trying to raise money for school fees or if there’s an emergency and they need medical support for their families.” Finding safe, sustainable alternative employment for locals is key to reducing dependency on mines, according to a WCS report.
Getting an accurate picture of the number of small mines operating in the gorillas’ habitat is difficult. “There’s been some decline where people have been moved out, but the government doesn’t maintain a full-time presence,” said Plumptre. However, the WCS has seen a steady rise since 1996. The mines are small and incredibly remote and with no nearby villages or other sources of food, hunting for bushmeat has become increasingly common. And due to their size and the ease with which they can be hunted, the Grauer’s gorillas have become major targets.
According to the WCS, artisanal mining is one of the “primary causes” of the decline in numbers. The mines are mainly producing columbite-tantalite, also known as tantalite or coltan, a mineral used in almost every kind of electronic device. The most commonly-mined conflict minerals in the area make up the 3TG group: tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold ore.
Such minerals are often linked exclusively to the technology sector, but their use is widespread. Jennifer Peyser, senior mediator at Washington, DC-based environmental organisation Resolve, pointed to aerospace, automotive and jewellery as other “very important” sectors. She added that great strides had been made to ensure the global supply chain was conflict free, offering some hope to those striving to save the local gorilla population from hungry miners.
“Six years ago, it was virtually impossible to trace minerals further upstream of the refiner, smelter or metals processor,” said Peyser. “Now, there are systems to track material from validated conflict-free mines all the way through the supply chain.” More than 95 per cent of known tantalum smelters, she continued, are now verified as conflict-free through independent third party audits.
Companies that use such minerals must also be more willing to act on emerging or previously unknown threats to their due diligence processes, Peyser added. More stringent and sophisticated risk mitigation systems would lower the risk of “poaching-related minerals” ending up in supply chains.
Concern over conflict minerals in the DRC has seen a lot of coltan mining shift to Australia, but business in Africa is still booming. In 2014 the British Geological Survey estimated Central African mines contributed nine per cent of global coltan supply.
Plumptre said he was “pretty sure” large, well-known electronics companies were producing products containing minerals obtained from mines hunting bushmeat. But tracing back the supply chain, particularly when it comes to minerals obtained from illegal mines that rely on bushmeat, is an arduous task. Minerals from so-called ‘bushmeat mines’ likely make their way through several middlemen in the Rwandan port cities of Bukavu or Goma before spreading out across the world.
“There’s still an international demand for these minerals and many of them are flowing out through Uganda and Rwanda,” added Plumptre. “They can get hidden in whatever exports are going out through those two countries. Even with a certification scheme, which is one of the things we’re proposing, it’s difficult to control because other minerals from other sites can be slipped into the chain.”
While gorilla numbers have been steadily increasing in protected areas, populations elsewhere continue to decline at a rate of about five per cent every year. The WCS is currently lobbying to create two new protected areas in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, which could be run by local communities as an alternative form of employment. But Plumptre has a stark warning for areas that fail to protect gorilla populations.
“At other sites, where there is no protecting going on, it’s unlikely the rate of decline is going to change. We predict that in most of those sites we could lose gorillas in the next five to ten years.”