Mining fuelling extinction of gorilla and okapi

The conservation group WWF has warned that miners seeking the valuable mineral coltan in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are pushing eastern lowland gorillas and the little-known relative of the giraffe, the okapi, to the point of extinction.

Both species have until recently found refuge in the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, both supposedly protected as United Nations World Heritage sites, however they are now being wiped out through hunting by miners who are seeking the valuable mineral coltan, used by high-tech companies as a hardening agent for metals.

The eastern lowland gorilla’s principal homeland is the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the rebel-held east of the Congo, where the population numbered around 280 in a 1996 census. In 2001, it is estimated by some sources that this figure has been more than halved, and this only concerns gorillas in the protected area, as outside the park’s boundaries, the news is feared to be even worse, WWF says. The park was also once home to 9,000 bush elephants, but today, none are thought to remain. The okapi is also now faced with extinction due to hunting in its principal habitat, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in northeastern Congo, which is the only protected area in the world for the animal it is named after.

The problem is that when hunting for food, miners do not differentiate between endangered and common animals, and the search for coltan is not likely to stop until its supply dries up, as the product commands a billion dollars a year trade in Europe and the United States. Preventing the killings is made additionally difficult for park rangers and authorities as many of the miners are well-armed former members of local militias. “We cannot expect the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to ignore their natural wealth, but mining should be approached in a manner that does not destroy local wildlife, particularly the very rare gorillas,” said WWF’s Dr Peter Stephenson. “One day soon the coltan will run out and the money will dry up yet with a thriving gorilla population, you have the potential for a long term source of foreign income from sensitive eco-tourism opportunities.”

Protests by a number of conservation organisations have so far fallen on deaf ears, WWF says. “The real need is to focus our energies not just political lobbying in the DRC, but on pressurising those companies that are buying the coltan from mainland Africa, in order to ensure its origin is not from any of areas were the gorillas are being wiped out,” Stephenson said.

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