for National Geographic News
Following a decade of civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, new estimates suggest that the number of eastern lowland gorillas (see sidebar) may have plummeted by 70 percent. Conflict, illegal mining for a mineral used for electronic-device components, and the growing bush-meat trade have all taken their toll, according to conservation groups that announced the preliminary findings this week.
The news contrasts sharply with recent, more detailed surveys for another gorilla subspecies, the eastern mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei), which is found mainly on the Virunga Mountains in the Congo and Uganda. Those surveys showed that mountain gorillas rebounded by up to 17 percent during a similar period.
According to Washington D.C.-based Conservation International (CI) and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International in Atlanta, detailed surveys carried out in 1994 prior to the war revealed that there were perhaps 17,000 eastern lowland gorillas (Gorilla beringei graueri). Today, according to the latest rough estimates, fewer than 5,000 may remain.
In reaction to these findings, CI has pledged some three million U.S. dollars to conservation projects in the region, hoping to slow the species's steep decline over the next few years.
"The staggering and almost immediate disappearance of the eastern lowland gorilla underscores the alarming decline of an entire ecosystem," said Juan Carlos Bonilla, CI's senior director for central Africa. "But this joint effortwhich includes everyone from tribal chiefs to nongovernmental organizations and national governmentsrepresents an unprecedented commitment to preserve the region."
Devastation from the war itself and a "modern day gold rush" for the rare metallic ore coltan (which is in high demand for the manufacture of components for cell phones, laptops, and other electronic devices), have driven destruction of the rain forests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Bonilla said.
The region is home to 97 percent of the eastern lowland gorilla's habitat. Illegal mining of coltan, including in conservation areas, has flourished over the last decade, and the camps that accompany them are centers for trading bush meat (the meat of wild animals, including gorillas), Bonilla said. "One of the many reasons for civil conflict has been the scramble for access to these natural resources," Bonilla said.
The new population estimate is based on extrapolations of small surveys and information gathered from talking to local people, said Patrick Mehlman, a primatologist and director for Africa programs with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (DFGFI) in Goma, DRC. "The figure is a best guess from experts that know the region well," he said.
Part of CI's new investment will be used by DFGFI to plan much more detailed surveys of the eastern lowland gorilla and other species such as the forest elephant, Mehlman said.
More of the funding will be ploughed into the DRC's Maiko National Parkthat reserve, another one called Kahuzi-Biega, and neighboring regions are home to nearly all eastern lowland gorillas.
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