for National Geographic News
Recycle your cell phone, save the gorillas.
It may not be as simple as that, but a recycling program to collect old cell phones at the San Diego Zoo and other American zoos is highlighting the little-known connection between cell phone use and the survival of African gorillas.
Conservationists point out that recycling cell phones protects landfills from the many potentially hazardous chemicals found in the phones, including antimony, arsenic, copper, cadmium, lead, and zinc.
But cell phones also include coltan, a mineral extracted in the deep forests of Congo in central Africa, home to the world's endangered lowland gorillas.
Fueled by the worldwide cell phone boom, Congo's out-of-control coltan mining business has in recent years led to a dramatic reduction of animal habitat and the rampant slaughter of great apes for the illegal bush-meat trade.
"Most people don't know that there's a connection between this metal in their cell phones and the well-being of wildlife in the area where it's mined," said Karen Killmar, the associate curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo.
"Recycling old cell phones is a way for people to do something very simple that could reduce the need for additional coltan and help protect the gorillas," she said.
There are more than 150 million cell phone users in the United States alone.
With technology changing, the average lifespan of a cell phone is 14 months. There may already be 500 million unused cell phones in the United States, with as many as 100 million added each year.
The San Diego Zoo is among 46 zoos that have joined the recycling program, which is run by Eco-Cell, a cell phone-recycling firm based in Louisville, Kentucky.
Eco-Cell collected 21,000 phones last year and hopes to triple that figure this year.
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