Is Chinese Economic Demand Killing Africa's Gorillas?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Simon Maina / AFP / Getty Images

A female mountain gorilla sits in vegetation in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, on the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda

Perhaps the worst misfortune to befall the world's gorillas is that they live in some of the most resource-rich and lawless parts of the planet. Their forest homes in Africa are rich in timber, gold, diamonds and coltan, the mineral used in electronics like cell phones, and the scramble to get at those minerals has been joined by ragtag militias, national armies, multinationals and governments alike.

That means it is an unusually bad time to be a gorilla. A new U.N. report warns that most of the remaining gorillas in Africa could go extinct within 10 to 15 years in the Greater Congo Basin, the swath of forest and savanna that stretches from Africa's Atlantic coast across the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Rwanda and Uganda in the east.

The races for timber, gold and coltan are largely to blame for habitat loss, said the report. Militias sell their goods to middlemen and corporations that ignore the destruction caused by the resource trade, and they must be held accountable for the loss of biodiversity in the region. "Companies involved, also multinationals, have shown little or no concern regarding the origins of the resources obtained," says the report, co-authored by the U.N. Environment Program and Interpol. Militia groups that control mining in parts of Congo keep afloat with "an influx of arms in exchange for minerals and timber through neighboring countries, including the continued involvement of corrupt officials and subsidiaries of many multinational companies."

Along with habitat loss, the apes face threats from human population growth and a surge in the bush-meat trade — locals and organized traders killing wildlife to eat and sell — along with the spread of the Ebola virus, estimated to have killed about a third of the world's gorillas in the past 15 years.

A similar report in 2002 estimated that only 10% of the gorillas' habitat would remain by 2032. But the authors say even that dire prediction was optimistic. At the time, researchers did not predict the rise in Chinese demand for timber or the extent of mining in Congo. "Ten years ago, when we did the other report, China and the rest of Asia were not major players in Africa, and now China has up to 40% of the wood-and-mineral trade," Christian Nellemann, a U.N. Environment Program official and the report's lead author, tells TIME. "We have new satellite imagery, new scientific evidence. We have new alarming reports on Ebola and transnational crime taking place in eastern DRC."

Local people have shed taboos about eating gorilla meat, so the bush-meat trade is on the rise. Mining and logging camps hire professional poachers to feed their workers and the refugees who have fled nearby conflict. Though gorillas still make up a tiny percentage of the trade, losses can be devastating, because the gorilla numbers are so low and their communities are so tightly knit.

There are two species of gorilla in the Greater Congo Basin: the western and eastern gorilla. Each species has two subspecies. Nellemann says the most threatened of those is the eastern lowland gorilla, which lives mostly in eastern Congo's North and South Kivu regions. Those areas have seen some of the worst of the fighting between the Congolese army and various rebel groups in recent years, as well as mining for metals such as gold and coltan. In 2009, scientists found a previously unknown group of 750 eastern lowland gorillas, but their numbers are still down from about 17,000 in the mid 1990s to 5,000 today.

The report does point to one hopeful recovery: that of the iconic mountain gorilla in eastern Congo's Virunga National Park. Mountain-gorilla numbers rose from about 250 in the 1950s to some 380, thanks mostly to stepped-up ranger patrols that target poachers and loggers who cut down wood for charcoal. "It has been a success story, but it doesn't make them any less vulnerable," says Emmanuel de Merode, director of Virunga National Park. "We're dealing with an unusual situation, where we have very low numbers in a single location. It's like having all your eggs in one basket, and that makes them very vulnerable beyond the success we've been having these last few years."

The case of the mountain gorilla is unique, in part because Virunga is a highly visible flagship park that has no trouble getting money or attention. At the same time, conservationists say it may provide a lesson: De Merode and his team essentially decided to do everything themselves, relying on the park rangers rather than the government to go after the rebels threatening the apes. Given that government troops sometimes trade with rebels or take part in the mineral and charcoal trades, they could actually be part of the problem.

The report focuses on the iconic gorillas of eastern Congo. But researchers say the western gorillas, though greater in number, are dying at a much faster rate. That's because they don't attract nearly the attention that Virunga's mountain gorillas do and live in areas where poachers escape punishment easily. "The most critical challenge that we face in central Africa is undoubtedly a lack of law enforcement," says David Greer, coordinator of the African Great Apes Program at the World Wildlife Fund. "In no uncertain terms, it's the ubiquitous impunity in this region. Nobody is held accountable, and there's no deterrent for killing protected species."