Gorillas are one of humankind’s closest living relatives. They are the largest primates on the planet – adult males can weigh over 200 kilograms and reach heights of over 1.7 meters. They live in family groups. 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’. They are now pushed to the brink of extinction.
In 2018 they joined 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 percent 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 are 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.
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.
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 are 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. As Nick Funnel reports in BBC Earth.
However, Gorillas are also targeted to be used in traditional medicine and live animal trade. They are also sought after as pets or trophies and for their body parts, which are used in medicine and as magical charms.
Forests are rapidly being destroyed by commercial logging interests, for subsistence agriculture and road building activities. This makes it harder for gorillas to sustain their lives.
The impact of the diseases cannot be ignored. Since the early 1990s, outbreaks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever have caused large-scale die-offs of great apes. Between 2002 and 2003 the Ebola virus claimed many human lives in the north of the Republic of Congo and at two study sites in and around Odzala National Park, 95 percent of the 600 identified gorillas died likely as a result of Ebola, as WWF reports.