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As Cell Phones boom, Gorillas Bust

Users of mobile phones and other devices incorporating the mineral coltan, obtained from the Democratic Republic of Congo, are contributing to the downfall of apes.

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Mobile phones are making apes a dying breed

When cell phones ring, their tune is overly cheerful. But an increasing use of these electronic gadgets has contributed to the tragic decline of the world's dwindling population of apes.

Cell phones, and other electronic goods, use the mineral coltan, which is obtained mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.

Part of the country is the last stronghold of the Eastern Lowland Gorilla, of which there are only a thousand left. The number is down from an estimated 8,000 a few years ago.

Coltan boom

The Kahuri-Biega National Park (KBNP), a UNESCO World Heritage Site is being increasingly exploited by those who want to mine the mineral coltan.

Coltan is used to make pinhead capacitators, which regulate voltage and store energy in mobile phones.

The spread of mobile phones across the world in recent years has led to a coltan boom in eastern DRC, home to 80 per cent of the world’s coltan reserves.

The environmental damage as a result of coltan mining is alarming: forests are cleared, leading to the erosion of unprotected earth, mine workers hunt animals for bushmeat, trees are de-barked to make panning trays to wash coltan, streams are polluted by silt from the washing coltan process and animals are disturbed by the large number of people resident and moving thorough the forest.

In 2001, the demand for 500 million new mobile phones drove up the costs of coltan to such an extent that smugglers began building illegal airstrips in the forests to facilitate transportation out of the forest region.

One for the military, one for the chief

In DRC’s eastern region, some 15,000 people are expected to be working in coltan mines.

Eastern DRC is a war zone, where factions vie for power across the borders of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

According to British primatologist Ian Redmond, the miners here have to pay one spoonful of the mineral to the military, and one to the local chief.

"That’s something in the region of $1 million a month going into the pockets of the militia", he told the BBC.

Gorilla Porträt

As one of two known deposits for the mineral lie in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, the situation for gorillas there has become unbearable. The number in KBNP and those in the adjacent Kasese forests has been reduced to under 1,000, a report for the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund Group and the Born Free Foundation says.

Close to midnight

According to Klaus Töpfer, Executive Director of Unep, "The clock is standing at one minute to midnight for the Great Apes. Some experts estimate that in as little as five to ten years they will be extinct across most of their range".

Last year, Unep launced GRASP, the Great Apes Survival Project, which has since been working together with Ape Alliance Groups including the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Born Free Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.

Measures taken to halt the rapid declination of apes in 23 remaining countries include the introduction of community rangers to prosecute offenders in wildlife sancturies, education schemes for locals and gorilla monitoring programmes.

"Where Great Ape Tourism has been developed, they have become to local communities an important source of revenue worth more alive than dead", Heather Eves, Director of Bushmeat Crisis Task Force says.

But for eastern DRC, the main problem still remains the political situation. The Diane Fossey Foundation report calls for short-term action including "immediate, high-level pressure on the presidents of RCD-Goma, Rwanda and Uganda to order action to halt the destruction in DRC’s national parks and reserves, especially KBNP", and an end in coltan trade.

Looking forward, the report says "when peace returns to the region, the successful guerilla tourism of the 1970s and 1980s should resume, financing the conservation work and bringing benefits to the surrounding communities."

But until peace returns to Congo, gorillas will continue to flee spreading mining sites, be killed by pollution and meat hunters and their environment increasingly polluted.

And mobile phone users far from the African continent will continue to be ignorant of the gorillas' fate.

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