Primatologists tracked a herd of Grauer’s gorillas through rugged terrain for weeks. They cut through dense rainforest, followed sharp-ridged canyons, and crossed nearly impenetrable mountains in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
A field team of Stuart Nixon, Chryso Kaghoma, and Congolese tracked the “Eastern Lowland Gorilla” using GPS to learn where they rest each night, what they eat and what their habits are. of data were collected. But investigators kept some distance to avoid affecting herd behavior or allowing the gorillas to standardize on humans, and tracked the primate family a day after it passed.
Or maybe the scientists just thought so. While sitting quietly in the woods one day, Mr. Nixon heard the rustling of bushes ten feet away. He looked up to see the blue-black face of a large male silverback staring down at him. After staring at each other for a very long time (a few seconds, actually), the gorilla turned and fled into the bush with the rest of the family.
Once dubbed the ‘forgotten gorilla’, they are extremely rare to see, as they are largely unexplored and largely absent from zoos around the world.
In the last 20 years (just one generation), the Grauer’s gorilla population has plummeted by 77% . According to a major study published in 2016 , there are only about 3,800 individuals left in the wild.
The reasons given are the civil war and the mining of “conflict minerals” such as tin ore and coltan, which are used in mobile phones, laptops and home appliances. Gorillas are poached and eaten to near extinction by armed militias, miners and a small number of refugees.
“Illegal poaching of bushmeat is the biggest threat,” says Liz Williamson, a researcher at Stirling University in Scotland and a member of the IUCN Primate Specialist Group .
Planned Trump Policy Threatens Great Apes
Both the Grauer gorillas and the local population face additional threats from military leaders, militias and miners if U.S. President Donald Trump signs into a draft presidential memorandum that was leaked to Reuters in early February .
The new policy would allow US companies to freely purchase conflict minerals (gold, tin, tantalum, coltan, tungsten, etc.) without disclosing them to the public. That would increase mining activity in the Congo Basin, with more workers hunting bushmeat for survival.
Trump’s memorandum voids the Conflict Minerals Disclosure Rule for two years. The Disclosure Regulation was passed by Congress in 2010 with support from both houses of Congress as part of the Dodd-Frank Act of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). At the time, the bill was opposed by the business community, but supported by human rights groups and environmentalists.
Current regulations require companies to disclose conflict minerals coming from the DRC and neighboring countries. When the regulation passed, then-SEC chairman Mary L. Schapiro said, “Congress, in adopting this bill, will help control the problem of violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo through reporting obligations under the Securities Exchange Act.” I have expressed my hope that it will become a
Trump has cited the “job cuts” the regulations have made so far as a reason for suspending disclosure regulations. The Trump administration did not respond.
However, African countries were quick to express their concerns, stating that “the proposal will lead to a surge and eventual generalization of terrorist organizations, the transnational nature of money laundering and illicit outflows of funds in the region.” There is fear,” the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region of Africa (ICGLR) told Reuters . Twelve African countries are members of the ICGLR.
Grauer – number of gorillas
The 2016 survey (the largest survey ever conducted on a Grauer’s gorilla), under the leadership of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Fauna & Flora International (FFI), explored the only known habitat of the Grauer’s gorilla in Congo. Park officials, locals and scientists combed an area of 7,450 square kilometers (about 3,000 square miles) to determine the eastern population. The researchers then used statistical analysis and computer modeling to estimate population size.
The findings made headlines internationally and were triaged by the conservation community.
Within months, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified Grauer’s gorilla to the Critically Endangered/Critically Endangered category, the final warning on the brink of extinction in the wild .
The Grauer gorilla is on the IUCN Red List among the western lowland gorilla ( G. g. gorilla ), the cross river gorilla ( G. g. diehli ), and by far the best-known subspecies of the eastern population, to see this gorilla. three subspecies of the mountain gorilla ( G. b. beringei ) that attract tourists to the Virunga Mountains from all over the world .
Currently, all gorillas are classified as Critically Endangered/Critically Endangered.
“Most people have never heard the term ‘Grauer gorilla’. ‘Nevertheless’ this gorilla may be the first great ape to go extinct,” said the orphaned Grauer gorilla. Sonya Kahlenberg, who manages the only refuge in the world, the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center ( GRACE ), said.
When the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) conducted a survey of the Grauer gorilla (formerly Zaire gorilla) in 1994, researchers estimated the population at 17,000.
However, in April of the same year, the Hutus, the main ethnic group in Rwanda, launched a genocide against the minority Tutsis, and the genocide pushed two million refugees to the border between Zaire and Uganda. Massacres by the RDF and other militias took place there as many refugees sought refuge in national parks and forests. Many survived on bushmeat , and the gorilla “genocide” that began is still ongoing.
The DRC government distributed weapons to the local population to fight back. Many people fled, and it was mainly the forests illegally cut for the fuel and timber markets that suffered. The worst combination of hungry people and the easy availability of guns made hunting indiscriminate, forcing forest rangers and police to abandon national parks and other protected areas. And the forest turned into a slaughterhouse.
The stocky Grauer gorilla was a perfect target. Gorillas, which are easy to track and move on the ground in packs, provide a lot of meat with a single bullet. Grauer’s gorillas are the world’s largest primates, with males averaging about 400 pounds (180 kg), and the largest males standing at 6 feet 3 inches (190 cm) tall and weighing as much as 600 pounds (272 kg).
Conflict Minerals Stirring Up
The Congo War, which ended in 2003, left 5.4 million dead. But even then, the eastern DRC (home of the Grauer gorillas) continues to be in conflict over the region’s mineral wealth.
According to the non-profit World Without Genocide, Congo has the second lowest gross domestic product (GDP) in the world, but is the richest country in natural resources, with at least $24 trillion worth of minerals . It is believed that. That includes an estimated $28 billion worth of gold and vast amounts of columbite tantalite/coltan, which is used in electronic devices and more.
Unsettled conditions continued as exploitation of the rich mineral resources attracted miners, rogue traders, military personnel and corrupt government officials. But the biggest threat comes from more than 70 heavily armed militiamen, says Damien Caillaud, director of research at the Diane Fosse Gorilla Foundation /DRC’s Grauer Gorilla Research Program and professor at the University of California, Davis. .
Large militias control mines of “conflict minerals” and sometimes force people to work as slaves, the profits from which are used to buy weapons and sustain militias, so the existing government It became the master of a country without being able to control it.
Miners now work in the hinterlands and unprotected forests of the DRC National Park, home to a herd of Grauer gorillas that managed to survive the civil war, and the last remaining territory for gorillas. The Belgium-based International Peace Information Service (IPIS) reported over 1,000 mines in the region, almost all illegal.
Rogue miners are the greatest threat to the last surviving Grauer gorillas.
Despite the fact that it is illegal to kill or capture live gorillas or trade in gorilla parts or products under national and international law, armed groups and miners are killing apes at alarming rates. are hunting. They are simultaneously ravaging the land, turning lush rainforests into filthy, muddy lunar landscapes.
People living in close proximity to great apes also pose a pathogenic threat. Because gorillas are closely related to homo sapiens, they are susceptible to respiratory infections and other diseases in humans. A common cold can kill a gorilla.
Gorilla caught in a trap
The US-based organization Gorilla Doctors provides the best possible care for trapped gorillas. One promising way forward in this situation is to have many Congolese veterinary students learn more about great ape medicine, a training that requires skills as complex as treating humans.
Killing one gorilla can cause significant collateral damage, ultimately resulting in the death of four to five gorillas, Caillaud said, explaining why. 90% of Grauer’s gorillas live in groups led by a single male silverback. Silverbacks are usually targeted by hunters because of their large bodies and large amounts of meat, and because they attack to protect their families. If a silverback is killed, the herd will have no choice but to disperse, and no offspring will be born until a female gorilla finds a new herd to join. Also, females who already have offspring may not survive. Silverbacks, like lions, can kill the offspring of other males.
Orphan Gorilla Rescue
Until 2010, no place existed to care for orphaned young Grauer’s gorillas captured by the Wildlife Service. A gorilla refuge, GRACE, was then established in the DRC with the goal of raising orphaned gorillas and equipping them with the skills they need to live with new families in the forest. The first four gorillas were airlifted to GRACE on a helicopter operated by the United Nations DRC peacekeeping force.
Orphaned gorillas often have a variety of psychological and physical scars and require a great deal of care. For example, in 2011, a 17-month-old male was found illegally sold in one village. The gorilla, too young to be weaned, was deprived of milk and fed only cassava, which is not gorilla food, for months. “Rubutu (the name of the gorilla)” arrived at GRACE severely malnourished, nearly hairless and very weak from dehydration. Fortunately, Lubutu survived and is thriving.
GRACE currently cares for 14 Grauer gorillas ranging from 2-year-old cubs to 16-year-old adults. These apes live in herds of surrogate families in forest environments, where older gorillas take the place of mothers to care for and protect newly arrived gorillas. Human contact is kept to a minimum.
“Gorillas are herding animals, and we see orphans moving around as soon as they are re-contacted,” Kahlenberg said. “Orphaned gorillas need companionship as much as emergency care.”
One of the reasons GRACE is so successful, she says, is that the facility has invited gorilla experts from some of the world’s best zoos to provide guidance and advice to all Congolese staff. It says. The zoo consults frequently via Skype, and experts have visited GRACE 63 times since 2010.
The region experienced some of the worst atrocities during the war, and almost all GRACE staff lost family members during or after the conflict.
But locals want to move forward and are passionate about conservation efforts. Kahlenberg said GRACE recently started a farm to grow gorilla food, and says about 40 children show up after school each week to help sow and tend crops. “The local people give me a lot of hope,” she says.
There are now only a few gorillas left in the wild, and the rate of arrival at GRACE is declining. Only one was sent last year. With the goal of eventually releasing some gorillas back into the wild to help isolated forest populations, GRACE has identified one potential release site. However, this is uncharted territory, as no one has ever returned captive Grauer’s gorillas to the wild.
Kahlenberg reveals that wild gorillas can adapt to changes in family groupings: “But how much group education has been taught to wild gorillas, and how do ‘refuge-raised gorillas’ respond to wild silverbacks?” We don’t know if it will show. Questions abound.”
Protection and investigation: dangerous work
Advocating for wildlife in the DRC is a very dangerous business . It is very difficult and dangerous for law enforcement personnel, such as national park rangers or environment officials, to enter remote areas. More than 200 wildlife defenders have been killed over the past two decades. The two most recent victims , Oscar Mianziro and Munganga Nzonga Jacques , were ambushed and attacked by armed militias in Kahuzi-Biega National Park in separate incidents in 2016.
Many of those who lost their lives fighting to save gorillas, elephants and other animals had large families of eight to 10 children themselves, says Stuart Nixon of Chester Zoo, UK.・Currently working as field program coordinator) says. These killings affect not only their families, but also the close-knit communities of their villages. “I’m very humbled,” says Nixon. “The attitude of sacrificing one’s own life is rarely seen in the developing world, even in the West.”
The violence and lawlessness of the DRC has made investigating the Grauer gorillas nearly impossible. As a result, much of what scientists “know” is extrapolated from studies of mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains on the border of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda half a century ago. ing.
The Eastern Lowland Gorilla ( G. b. graueri ) is named after Rudolf Grauer, an Australian zoologist who worked in Africa at the turn of the 20th century. He was the first to recognize this great ape as an entirely separate subspecies. Although similar to mountain gorillas, eastern lowland gorillas have longer limbs and shorter hair, and live in lowlands between 1,900 feet (579 m) and 9,500 feet (2,895 m) above sea level.
That last trait is important, Caillaud said, because gorilla habits are highly dependent on their habitat. This means that findings from mountain gorillas are not 100% applicable to eastern lowland gorillas, and that lowland and highland gorilla subspecies, for example, differ in habitat size and use. The same goes for food habits, with Grauer’s gorillas having a much stronger tendency to eat fruit than gorillas living in highlands. These differences clearly affect the social habits and habits of great apes.
Andy Plumptre (WCS biologist), Williamson, Nixon and others have been working in the DRC rainforest for years, despite the constant danger of violence.
Before Nixon embarked on an important mission, he contacted noted field biologist George Schaller to ask about his 1959 fieldwork, the first land survey of Grauer’s gorillas. . Using a map, Nixon showed Schaller the locations of 15 herds that lived in the exact same locations as surveyed more than half a century ago. “Thousands of square miles of forest surrounded these gorillas, but they weren’t able to expand their populations. I don’t know why,” Nixon said.
A survey conducted by Nixon in 2005 yielded some disturbing results. “We started to notice that the Grauer gorillas that were widespread in the 1960s were disappearing,” Nixon said. The population of the new subspecies discovered by the research team that year was hunted down in 2010. “Even though we know the population has been catastrophically reduced, we have to think about what’s left,” he says.
Government officials, park rangers, conservationists and locals working to protect the Grauer’s gorilla came together in 2012 to launch a Conservation Action Plan. The plan will identify cooperative strategies to build sustainable community livelihoods, and will also take on the role of underfunded agencies such as the Ministry of the Environment and the Congo Wildlife Authority, which protects wildlife in the DRC. It clarifies that they are compatible.
Through extensive research, the consortium realized the need to quantify the severe decline rate of Grauer’s gorillas. Large teams, usually 10-15 people, undertook a physically demanding survey of aimlessly roaming the rainforest between 2013 and 2015. Many of the surviving gorilla herds live in nearly inaccessible places, some 30 miles from the nearest village or drivable road. All equipment and food had to be carried in a bag, and safety issues were a constant headache.
The exhaustive survey confirmed the continuing rapid decline of the Grauer gorilla, and the IUCN quickly reclassified the subspecies as Critically Endangered/Critically Endangered.
ray of light
“The dire times may be slowly coming to an end,” says Liz Williamson with surprising optimism. “In some places (national) park guards have regained control.”
In that regard, she cites one example of success in the 1970s, when the Khafji-Biega National Park (an important site for the survival of the Grauer gorilla) became the first gorilla tourist destination in history. Before the civil war, the area had about 270 Grauer’s gorillas, whose population had been cut in half by slaughter.
The national park areas that are currently relatively stable are the government of the Congo, the Congo Conservation Council (ICCN), Fauna & Flora International , the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), other non-profit organizations, and park rangers (who work on the side of military personnel). ), protected by the dedicated and concerted efforts of the local community. Since 2003, there has been some level of conservation activity in Khafji-Biega, Nixon said. In one area of the park, the eastern lowland gorilla (G. b. graueri) population is now growing by nearly 200 individuals.
There is also hope for gorillas in remote areas such as the Usala Forest in the Maiko-Taina district (an area of 30,000 square kilometers (11,600 square miles)) in central eastern Congo. Nixon’s investigative team dug into Schaller’s case report and confirmed that Grauer’s gorillas lived there in 2007. Because the area is so remote from roads or villages, Grauer’s gorillas may have survived there for long periods of time.
“Despite the challenges, this proves that focus and aim can be successful,” Nixon said.
Since 2012, the Diane Fossey Gorilla Foundation has set up a field station in the heart of an isolated Grauer’s gorilla’s territories (unprotected forests between designated protected areas). Congolese staff at the observatory patrol the area, collect data on gorillas, and work in partnership with local residents of eight families who own large tracts of land. It also protects gorillas and other wildlife. The local population, who are poor villagers rather than wealthy landowners, have chosen to curb and curtail human activity on their lands. As a result, wildlife is slowly increasing. “In just a few short years, conservation efforts have had a visible impact,” reports Caillaud.
By 2008, about 25% of the Grauer’s gorilla habitat first located by George Schaller had been completely destroyed. Today, however, much of the rainforest still exists, although some populations are isolated. But that won’t last long, conservationists say, because the population is growing.
Efforts to protect critical forest areas have already begun, and in 2016 they were very successful where they worked. The newly protected Itombwe Nature Reserve was created for multiple uses for both wildlife and humans. It is one of the most biodiverse regions in Africa, with landscapes stretching from lowlands to mountains.
Consumer Choice Saves Gorillas
When buying electronics, few people realize that the supply chain of goods extends to the rainforests of Africa. Those parts may contain “blood coltan” from mines run by ruthless militias.
The world’s insatiable appetite for Playstations, laptops and cell phones (unless properly regulated) continues to create dangers, threaten the safety of local populations, and kill gorillas and other animals. If the Trump administration’s presidential memorandum again allows U.S. companies to freely purchase conflict minerals without public disclosure, gorillas (including many local residents) face further threats from mining expansion. Become.
Criticizing the actual losses in conflict minerals, Williamson said, “I hope this makes people think about the supply chain of raw materials.” Ultimately it’s up to the consumer’s choice, and if people care about the African community and the great apes, it’s best to “push the manufacturer and find a legal source they can trust (find it in the DRC).” It should be clarified whether the raw materials are obtained from Even if the mining operation is legitimate, she cautions, the supply chain may rely on militias posing as brokers.
Conservationists say consumers can help by replacing their electronics less frequently.
Kahlenberg concludes that it is very dangerous to rely on Grauer’s gorillas in captivity so few. If this great ape went extinct in the wild, it would be practically extinct forever.