Gorillas on the line

Chimp profiles

Baby chimps and gorillas are left orphaned when their parents are killed for bush meat.

Credit: Jane Goodall Institute

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Melbourne Zoo's Community Conservation Manager, Rachel Lowry, says most people have not yet realised that their phone is related to primates and their habitat. The campaign corporate partner, Aussie Recycling Program (ARP), donates $2 from each phone received, before rebuilding and shipping them to countries where there is a demand for refurbished phones at reduced prices. So far the campaign has raised $50,000, with 50 per cent going to the Jane Goodall Institute and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. The balance goes to Australian zoos to be spent on captive breeding programs. "The first cheque from ARP provided food for two months for 300 rangers in the Congo whose daily duties were to patrol jungle areas to stamp out poaching," says Lowry.

CEO of the Jane Goodall Institute of Australia, Polly Cevallos, says the funding they've received for the rangers' salaries has resulted in confiscation of nearly 2,000 snares and weapons and has contributed to a significant decrease in the presence of bush meat in village market places.

So, how is the mobile phone industry responding to the plight of gorillas in the Eastern Congo? Chris Althaus, chief executive of the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) says: "Our industry has complied with UN Security Council requests since we first became aware of the problem in 2001. The mobiles industry recognises that it is difficult to get a clear understanding of the origins of coltan and have asked our suppliers to verify in writing that they do not source it from the Democratic Republic of Congo."

"We have minimised our use of the capacitors containing coltan, or tantalum as it is called when used in mobiles," says Althaus. "In a handset, one or two capacitors out of more than 100 would contain coltan which equates to less than 0.4 g of tantalum or about 0.04 per cent of the phone's weight. Not all handsets use it. Tantalum is however used in mobile phone handsets that require superior voice qualities." This includes smartphones which are now hugely popular and in demand.

A statement issued by the AMTA points out that, according to the United States Geological Survey, in 2007 Australia produced more than half of the world's supply of coltan, while Brazil and Canada were also major suppliers of the mineral. Since then, Australian mining company Talison Minerals, which had previously supplied more than 30 per cent of global coltan demand, has mothballed its operation in Western Australia's Pilbara region because it was no longer considered viable. Certainly, the Congo's contribution to global coltan production is relatively small (a little less than one per cent), but the devastation caused by illegal mining is none the less disturbing for that.

Mobile phones are only one of many electronic devices containing coltan. According to the AMTA, tantalum
capacitors are critical components in computer motherboards, computer disc drives, video camcorders and engine control units and are used right across the electronics, chemical and defence industries. Product launches with huge consumer interest, such as that in 2000 of the Sony PlayStation 2, place huge demand on the coltan industry. This example was cited for an increase in price for the powdered mineral, from
$100/kg to $400/kg - resulting in a frenzied increase in coltan mining in Congo.

The electronic age and all the gadgets that go with it are undoubtedly here to stay, but with conservationists and industry experts working towards a common goal of gorilla-friendly electronic devices there is still hope that these remarkable primates can be saved from a future of permanent disconnection.

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