Coltan Boom, Gorilla Bust
Gorilla Journal - June 2001

The lucrative trade in coltan has recently become headline news. This report explores the link between rising sales of mobile 'phones and PlayStations and falling numbers of gorillas in an African war zone. However, there are two controversies relating to coltan from Central Africa. First, there is the broad question of whether or not it is legal to trade with rebel-held territories. This is the subject of the report by a "panel of experts", commissioned by UN Security Council to examine the exploitation of natural resources in war-torn Congo. The report can be downloaded from the UN website.

My report focuses on the second controversy - the exploitation of natural resources, especially coltan, in legally protected areas such as the Kahuzi-Biega Park. It is based on a nine-day visit to Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, during which discussions were held with conservationists, coltan traders, NGOs and government ministers and officials. An important source of information was the report of an independent consultant hired by ICCN.

Mining Techniques

Coltan is found in fairly soft rock, streambeds and alluvial deposits. Miners dig with shovels, sometimes with picks and crowbars to loosen the substrate. The loose mix is sieved through mesh of approx. 5 mm squares. The grit is then washed in a bowl, box or piece of curved bark until only the heavy coltan particles remain. The need for water to separate out the coltan means, of course, that mining tends to be concentrated along streams and rivers. This exacerbates the erosion of soils and the risk of landslips during heavy rain, and tends to silt up pools downstream.

The coltan grit is bagged in small nylon bags sewn from larger food sacks. There are two rough measures - a desert spoon and "le gosse" (a small tin, originally a condensed milk brand, which has come to mean the tin itself; it holds about 200 g of coltan grit). When the bags are full they may weigh from 15 kg to 50 kg according to the strength of the carrier, and a spring balance is usually present at the site to weight them. The bags are sewn shut and transported on the back in a "makako" - a sort of basket-rucksack made from forest lianas.

Environmental Damage from Coltan Mining

Bushmeat from the Park

When the first reports of the exploitation of Kahuzi-Biega mentioned bushmeat, it was thought that the meat was probably destined for local markets. This was the case when hunting first increased in 1998. Reports of ivory, timber and gold coming out of the park left the impression that anything of value was being looted.

It is only now that the picture since 1999 has emerged. Most of the miners in the park were eating large mammal meat for a year or more, including elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, buffaloes and antelopes. Now the hunters go out for up to a week, and even then sometimes return empty handed. No elephant meat was seen during 4 weeks of fieldwork, nor were tracks observed. It seems likely that elephants may be extinct and other large mammals have declined dramatically and are heading for local extinction. An estimated 200 men setting snares feed the mining camps. In a park of 6,000 km2, this gives an average hunting ground of only 5 km x 6 km per hunter. Clearly, sustained trapping at this intensity will exterminate every terrestrial animal capable of triggering the snares. In addition, poachers and ex-military use fire-arms - these will ensure that arboreal species, such as monkeys and larger birds, do not escape the carnage.

Orphaned apes

The independent consultant mentions a live baby gorilla being carried out of the forest on someone's back in a baby wrap. It was not a very small one (maybe 1-2 years) and seemed in good health. This was shortly before an expatriate soldier was offered a baby gorilla for sale in Gisenyi, Rwanda on 10 April 2001, and could well have been the same one. Unfortunately, the well-meaning soldier lectured the vendors on the error of their ways, and so was not taken to see the orphan and its whereabouts now is not known. Sadly, the whereabouts is known of many orphan chimpanzees, who seem better able to survive the traumas of capture and ill-treatment.

At the quarterly meeting of ICCN Conservators in November 2000, the subject of illegally held protected species was on the agenda. It was estimated that there may be as many as 50 orphan chimpanzees in the region - at least 20 in Bukavu and up to 10 in Goma alone. One of the action points for that meeting was a census of such captives, most of which are not receiving adequate care. The problem is then what to do about them. Without a sanctuary, the authorities are unable to confiscate them, and so there is an urgent need for an animal welfare NGO to step in to help here.

Socio-economic Consequences of the Coltan Boom

The destructive nature of the coltan-rush is not just to be measured in its environmental impact. Instead of being a rare opportunity for bringing benefits to hard-pressed communities, coltan has brought out the worst attributes of human nature - decadence, immorality, drug abuse and crime.

It is a double tragedy that the sudden increase in coltan prices has led to social and ecological destruction, rather than providing an opportunity to bring lasting benefits to the people by careful exploitation of legally mined deposits. It is the responsibility of those in the developed world, whose demand has created this chaos, to step in with the skills and resources to turn the situation around.

Coltan mining, with safe mines and environmentally responsible practices, could yet turn out to be a boon to the region. But only a responsible attitude on the part of the buyers will achieve this in a region where guns rule and might is perceived as right. The concept of "Certified Coltan" needs to be introduced immediately to the world market, and mineral dealers must act quickly if they are not to be tainted with the decadence of the Coltan Boom in Congo.

The Status of Grauer's Gorilla

It remains to be seen how many - or how few - of Kahuzi-Biega's 3,600 elephants and 8,000 gorillas have survived the massacre in the lowland area, but it is hoped that relict populations could have retreated to, or survived in, the most inaccessible parts, furthest from the mining areas. The only accurate data is from the highland area.

It appears that the population of Grauer's gorilla in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and Kasese may have been reduced to under 1,000. The other nine populations listed by Hall et al. (1998) numbered in the tens or hundreds a decade ago and are also likely to have declined or been exterminated. The population in Maiko National Park is thought to have escaped the heavy poaching, but if our worst fears prove founded, the sub-species may have been reduced from about 17,000 to only 2,000-3,000, an 80-90% crash in only 3 years.

The simple message from all the conservationists on the ground is that immediate action is required to save the park. If the political will to stop the mining, and resources for ICCN are not forthcoming now, then the chances of Grauer's gorillas surviving and the park recovering are virtually nil. The medium- and long-term plans are, therefore, dependent on the successful implementation of the short-term acts.

Summary of a report written by Ian Redmond (funded by DFGF Europe and Born Free Foundation). Complete report in PDF format

A Community Project for Conservation
Gorilla Journal - June 2000

The Gorilla Reserve of Tayna is situated in the Democratic Republic of Congo, North Kivu, Lubero territory, at 0-030'N and 2830'-29E. It is separated into two parts: The southern sector has an area of about 450 km2, the northern sector about 90 km2. The reserve is a community initiative and the land is property of the state. It is under community management and customary responsibility of the Batangi and Bamate chieftains.

Within the reserve, the vegetation consists mostly of ombrophile forests of transition, and most of the area is covered by primary forest. Regarding the fauna, some species are particularly interesting: the eastern lowland or Grauer's gorilla, the chimpanzee, the forest buffalo and the Congolese peacock. The biological diversity is remarkable, gorillas and chimpanzees are numerous. More detailed studies are still necessary to determine the number of animal and plant species in the reserve. The results will certainly be surprising.

In the surroundings of the reserve, people are grouped in small villages close to the boundaries. The largest village contains about 50 families along the main path that leads to a zone where mining takes place. This is an important place for gold mining, therefore it is presently fallow and a temporary encampment for 15-20 persons was constructed on this land.

The population cultivates various crops; the region is favourable for certain vegetables. People hunt for their own personal requirements, particularly porcupines and giant hogs. Gorillas are not consumed but sometimes chased when they damage plants and are considered dangerous for the population. Mining for gold is an important economic factor in the region. Bartering (with gold) is the only form of commercial exchange.

The main cause for deforestation in the region is the need of land for pasture and agriculture. At the moment, deforestation has been stopped 20 km from the reserve. Population migration programs now being organised in Lubero territory may pose a danger for the region. Their aim is to relocate people who have settled in the boundary zones of the Virunga National Park and the population in the western lowland zones. These migrations would increase the deforestation and be a risk for gorilla protection.

It would be possible to cross the reserve from the east by vehicle if the road was re-opened. This road has provided access to the mines since the colonial period. After the end of the colonial time they deteriorated. An airstrip at Bunyatenge (about 30 km east of the reserve) has not been maintained since the 1960s. The rivers in the region are navigable only for short distances because of numerous falls and cannot be crossed during rainy seasons.

Gold mining and wild animal hunting constitute the main sources of income for the local communities living around the reserve. With tourist visits to gorillas, however, the roads could be re-opened, and if the airstrip were repaired, the region's development could be promoted.

Management of the Reserve and Priority Actions

The reserve is run by three bodies: an administration counsel headed by a customary chief, a management counsel and a permanent management committee. Up to now, the material and feeding participation of the leader team during their visits of the area is financed by themselves individually and by the community. Some funding of material and for human resources would improve the conservation of the biodiversity in the region. We have no means of transport there. From the principal road up to the reserve, it is a 2-days walk and for crossing the reserve from east to west we need about 4 days.

At the moment a survey of the fauna and flora in the whole reserve is the first priority as well as a socio-economic study of local population. Based on the results of these studies, educational, scientific, economic and ecotouristic objectives have to be defined and a plan for the optimal management of forest resources has to be developed. This should include the preservation of the resources by the promotion of agroforestry, reforestation and community development. An adequate area for the reserve based on ecological data should be set up. It is important to clearly define the duties of all those involved inside and outside of the reserve. The relationship between the reserve and the local population should be improved and the economic activities in the region should be controlled and developed. According to the settlements of the population, a clear definition of the reserve's limits is very necessary. Setting up structures for supervision and control of human activities is also necessary and requires the recruitment of additional personnel, equipment, means of transport, the improvement of living conditions of all the personnel and the marking of the boundaries. The training of the personnel is an absolute necessity.

Support has Started

In order to reinforce the community efforts, the DFGF (Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund-International) donated a GPS machine and US$ 500 for the training and setting up of a team of guard trackers (8 are already at work). Partners in Conservation (Colombus Zoo) gave US$ 500 of allowances. Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe provided basic materials (blankets, basins, torches, ...). This support will be used to launch gorilla monitoring and to collect data on vegetation and cartography. Earthwarch allowed a probation period for 2 persons in Cameroon. Five staff members will be trained in Tanzania (Mweka College of African Wildlife Management) and soon in South Africa (South Africa College). In the meantime we need a sponsor for the training.

The Gorilla Reserve of Tayna welcomed the moral support from ICCN, IGCP and other local organisations (SEPRONA, UWAKI, ADPBL, PAL/AGIR, PEVI/WWF).

Jean Claude Kyungu
Jean Claude Kyungu led an ecologic NGO (1994-1999). Since 1997, he has been the North-Kivu consultant for biodiversity. He was chosen to lead the Tayna gorilla reserve. He is a field assistant for research in the North-Kivu University Centre.


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