Gorillas on the line

G Magazine

Gorilla numbers in the Congo are declining. The number of mobile phones around the globe is on the rise. As unlikely as it may seem, there is a connection.

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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Each and every time your mobile phone rings, a mineral ore called coltan enables the call to be made. Coltan, which coats the tiny capacitor inside most mobile phones, is mined in central Africa with devastating flow-on effects: the deforestation of primate habitat and butchering of animals to the point of endangering species.

Eighty per cent of the world's reserves of coltan are found in the Congo. This same region is home to the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) and Grauer's gorilla (Gorilla beringei grauer - formerly known as the eastern lowland gorilla). As mining operations expand to meet escalating global demand for coltan, clearing the country's lush forest, the habitat of these gorillas and at least 10 other primate species is being destroyed, and with it their food sources. In addition to these threats to their survival, the increased human population in mining areas has led to these primates being hunted for bush meat.

The United Nations Environment Programme reported a 90 per cent decline in the number of Grauer's gorillas in eight Democratic Republic of Congo national parks between 1996 and 2001. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classifies mountain and Grauer's gorillas as endangered and estimates their respective populations as being 680 and 16,900 individuals.

Andrea Edwards, formerly a primate keeper at Melbourne Zoo, has spent the last 18 months in the Congo as the co-manager of the Lwiro Primate Rehabilitation Centre. She and 29 local Congolese staff have over 100 chimpanzees and monkeys in their care. Some have been orphaned; many are injured. Every animal has reached the sanctuary because they have been caught up in the bush meat trade or the mining of coltan, gold and diamonds.

"Some of the mining is legal, but most is run by rebel armies where workers are rarely paid or paid a minimum wage in return for guns which they use for hunting," says Edwards. "They eat the meat themselves or sell to others. The amount of bush meat coming out of the area is on the increase. Babies, which don't have enough meat on them, are sold as pets."

Image on right: Forests of the region are cleared to enable further mining, leaving little habitat for the remaining mountain gorillas.

Edwards reports animals that come to the rehabilitation centre are presenting with hepatitis, measles and common colds, which can be life-threatening, as their immune systems are not equipped to deal with human diseases.

And it is not only the animals that are suffering - communities are being plundered. UN Security Council reports have implicated illegal mining and smuggling of coltan in funding the military occupation of the Congo. Much of the ore is being smuggled over the eastern borders of the country by militias to Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi, fuelling conflict in the Congo, while prisoners-of-war and children are often forced to work in the illegal mines. The Democratic Republic of the Congo Permanent Mission to the United Nations (DRCPMUN) reported that the Rwandan army had made an estimated US$250 million over a period of 18 months from the sale of coltan, though no coltan is mined in Rwanda.

Testifying to being woken in the night by gunfire, Edwards says her staff members have a suitcase packed and stored at the sanctuary, ready to run into the fields in case there is a raid during the night by rebel armies. "Rape, murder and kidnapping are not uncommon. It is a very volatile environment," she says.

Miners working for legal operations are paid well in comparison with workers elsewhere in the Congo. According to the DRCPMUN, the average Congolese worker makes $10 a month, while a coltan miner can make anywhere from $10 to $50 a week.

If manufacturers of mobile phones and other electronics were to buy coltan only from legally mined sources it would stamp out illegal trade; however, this is easier said than done. Edwards explains that, while certified coltan can be sourced, most of it has originated in the Congo and been shipped to another country like Rwanda, where it is certified before being sold, making it very difficult to track its origins.

Recycling coltan is a proven way to reduce demand for the ore and reduce the destructive consequences of illegal mining. Melbourne Zoo, in conjunction with the Jane Goodall Institute, has launched the 'They're Calling You' campaign, encouraging Australians to donate their old phones. In the first four months 4,000 phones have been collected.

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.