It’s seriously bad news for the world’s largest primate.
Populations of the Grauer’s Gorilla, which is found only in small parts of the Congo Basin, appear to have collapsed dramatically over the past two decades.
The Grauer’s Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) is a subspecies of the Eastern Gorilla and a member of the Family Hominidae -- which includes humans as well as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans.
It is closely related to Mountain Gorillas, which were made famous by Dian Fossey, who was murdered by poachers while trying to protect them -- as recounted in the iconic book and movie, “Gorillas in the Mist”.
An international research team censused Grauer’s Gorillas in the mid-1990s and again last year. Overall, the team members hiked some 12,000 kilometers during their censuses, searching for gorilla signs such as their nests and dung as well as live gorillas.
Jefferson Hall, formerly of the Wildlife Conservation Society and now with the Smithsonian Institution, led the censuses in the 1990s and estimated that about 17,000 Grauer’s Gorillas were alive at that time.
The results of the recent censuses are flat-out scary. Led by Andrew Plumptre of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Stuart Nixon of the Chester Zoo in the U.K., they estimate that only 3,800 Grauer’s Gorillas are alive today -- a population decline of 77 percent over the last 20 years.
By any reckoning, that is a disaster. The research team concludes that the Grauer’s Gorilla should now be classified as Critically Endangered -- truly in peril of extinction.
Formerly considerably more widely distributed, today Grauer’s Gorillas survive only in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Their current range is only about one-fifth as large as it was before the population collapse, according to Ghislain Vieilledent, a team member with the research organization CIRAD in France.
Victims of War and Over-Exploitation
Why has the world’s biggest primate declined so precipitously? A combination of factors appears responsible, with poaching, war, and illegal mining being the biggest causes.
Poaching has spiked throughout the Congo Basin as a result of industrial logging, which has created tens of thousands of kilometers of forest roads. Illegal and legal miners are also penetrating deep into remaining forest areas -- especially to search for valuable Coltan, which is used to manufacture cell phones and other electronics. Many of these miners also poach wildlife, including gorillas.
And rather than using traditional weapons such as spears and arrows, poachers in the Congo today today are armed with far more lethal technologies -- rifles, shotguns, and cable snares.
The spike in road building and poaching has also led to the demise of other rainforest wildlife, such as Forest Elephants, which are killed for their valuable ivory tusks. In the last decade, the population of Forest Elephants has plummeted by about two-thirds, almost entirely because of its epic slaughter by illegal poachers.
Another nail in the coffin of the Grauer’s Gorillas are the intense conflicts that have plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo. In effect, the eastern DRC has often been in civil war since the mid-1990s.
Although Grauer’s Gorillas are legally protected in the DRC, law enforcement becomes almost impossible in such war-torn areas. Over the last two decades, more than 170 wildlife rangers have been murdered in the DRC, often by heavily-armed poachers.
For the Grauer’s Gorilla, it’s clear that urgent action is needed. Right now, armed militias control mining camps in the heart of its geographic range. Unless the rule of law can be established, continued poaching could drive the gorilla to extinction.
Conservationists and researchers are pushing hard for the establishment of two new protected areas -- Punia Gorilla Reserve and Itombwe Natural Reserve -- as well as reinforcement of Kahuzi-Biega National Park. These areas would make a huge difference to the gorillas, they say, if they are adequately staffed and protected.
There’s also a big need to pressure cellphone and computer companies to ensure that the Coltan they buy doesn’t come from mining sites in key gorilla habitats.
We’ve all heard of ‘Blood Diamonds’ and ‘Blood Gold’. It’s also time to start talking about ‘Blood Coltan’ -- and to threaten to boycott companies who are sourcing their Coltan from places where miners are murdering gorillas.
Finally, improved law enforcement is critical. An urgent priority is to disarm the lawless militia groups and poachers who now operate freely in the eastern DRC, especially in critical gorilla habitats.
Jefferson Hall, who began the study of Grauer’s Gorilla 20 years ago, hails the courage of Congolese park rangers and conservationists. “Right now, these people literally face mortal danger when they try to save the gorillas,” he said.