By Matt Brunette
My trip took me from Kenya to Rwanda to DR Congo in just about 2 weeks. It was a lot to take in but it was a truly amazing experience. The purpose of the trip was to assess current projects and develop new strategies for eastern lowland gorilla conservation in Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBNP) with the Canadian Ape Alliance, an organization I have been volunteering with over the past few years. We were able to meet with Strong Roots Congo and the United Nation’s Great Ape Survival Program (GRASP) to get a better idea of the status of eastern lowland gorillas in DR Congo.
As many have suspected the current state is quite grim. Political instability, war, lack of infrastructure and increasingly mining have resulted in massive pressures on local forest resources in DR Congo. Full censuses of eastern lowland gorilla numbers were not feasible during the war that spiralled into DR Congo out of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Though the war is now over, many armed groups remain in the forests of eastern DR Congo and the lack of stability in the country increases the possibility of future conflict. Eastern lowland gorilla numbers were estimated at approximately 17,000 before the war and now current informal indicators suggest that numbers are closer to 2,000. A devastating decrease in population size.
The war was a big factor. The armed conflict resulted in massive human population displacement as people fled to other provinces or countries as conflict refugees.
Presently armed groups occupy parts of national parks, forests and ape habitats where they use apes and other forest animals as food sources. Additional factors contributing to gorilla population decline include illegal mining and other human population pressures such as the spread of human diseases, habitat degradation and the extraction of other forest resources.
The tricky part is that all factors contributing to declining gorilla numbers are tightly-interconnected in a web that makes it difficult to tackle one particular issue at a time. These interconnected factors are further complicated by global economic trends and interactions.
The same issues contributing to gorilla population collapse contribute to awful conditions for the people living in these areas. For example, small scale mining (AKA artisanal mining), is a major factor of declining gorilla population numbers as it involves small groups of people moving into ecologically sensitive areas to extract minerals. This type of mining becomes illegal when it occurs in national parks. These methods of small scale mining are often unregulated, unsafe and highly destructive to the natural environment. The mining is often seen as one of the few viable options of generating income for people to support themselves and their families. It gets further complicated and even more destructive when armed groups use violence and intimidation to gain control of many artisanal mines and generate income through the slave labour of miners (which are often women and children). These minerals travel through a convoluted supply chain, through other African countries to Asia where they essentially become mixed with other minerals from other sources before being used to make the products that we so cherish at home like laptops, cellphones and other electronic devices. The 4 many minerals extracted in the eastern regions of DR Congo include gold and the 3 T’s – tantalum (AKA Coltan used in electronics), tungsten (also used in components for electronics), and tin. The artisanal mining of these minerals and more has become a mess of social, environmental and economic issues for the people and ecosystems of eastern DR Congo.
Another interesting note is that GRASP has found that the routes of mineral flow overlap with that of the pet trade – in which infant apes are collected from the wild (often through the massacre of family groups) and sold to private buyers and zoos in the Middle East and Asia.
The good news is that the war is finally over – and hopefully for good (Elections or the lack thereof in October 2016 may be critical to future stability in DR Congo). With stability now returning to the region it now becomes a great time to get projects moving forward. By acting through a combination of local, foreign and international based organizations, effective projects, programs and strategies can be put into action that capitalize on a range of experiences, capacities and resources. It really takes an army of dedicated people to tackle such a big issue.
Another good thing is that conservation efforts have increasingly shifted to the progressive strategy of addressing the needs of local human populations in these regions of ecological importance. This not only gives the people of these tragically devastated regions a chance at improving their social and economic situations but it also takes a lot of the resulting pressure off of the surrounding fragile ecosystems.
Efforts from the partnership between Canadian Ape Alliance and Strong Roots Congo have indicated gorilla population stability and even growth in areas where projects are focused.
There’s a view that conservation efforts for endangered species don’t matter because they are just animals living in a faraway forest, and that we have plenty of them and other animals and forests left on the planet.
Unfortunately for those that adhere to that simplistic world view, it’s really not that simple, and it really does matter.
Gorillas are ecologically important because of the various ecosystem services, such as seed dispersion, that they provide and their integration in the highly diverse rainforest ecosystem. Gorillas are often seen, as many other endangered species, as an indicator of a healthy and diverse ecosystem. Their decline in population is indicative of human misuse and overuse of natural resources. In essence they represent a canary for health and status of the Congo Rainforest (second largest tropical rainforest after the Amazon) and the signal is quite clear.
The declining numbers of great apes across both Africa and Asia are an important environmental issue that demands the attention of everyone – even us all the way over here in Canada where such an issue can seem irrelevant to our daily lives.
Globalization and resource consumption, however, are all relevant to our daily lives, and it’s these factors that in one way or another – either directly or indirectly – have impacts that extend far beyond our homes and workplaces and contribute to increasingly relevant environmental issues like climate change, ecosystem/ land degradation and the loss of biodiversity.
The Canadian Ape Alliance will continue to develop programs, raise funds and strengthen partnerships with Strong Roots Congo and other related ape conservation groups in an effort to improve the survival rates of eastern lowland gorillas in KBNP and surrounding areas.