Africa’s biggest gorillas are being poached and pushed out of their habitat in the northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Grauer’s gorillas once ruled the jungles of central Africa. Now, their numbers have dwindled to under 4,000 — a 77 percent drop in the past 20 years — and the huge primates are struggling to survive.
The plummeting population of this great ape has prompted a number of conservationists and their nongovernmental organizations to call for Grauer's gorillas to be designated as “critically endangered” in hopes of protecting the ones still left.
Standing an average of 1.7 meters (5.6 feet) tall and weighing 163 kilograms (360 pounds), the Grauer’s, or eastern lowland gorilla, is the largest of the four gorilla subspecies. Their natural habitat is the eastern DRC's Kahuzi-Biega and Maiko national parks.
Joe Walston of the Wildlife Conservation Society said that habitat is no longer safe because of chronic fighting involving the army and the many rebel groups.
FILE - A young Grauer's gorilla is seen in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in South Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Nov. 5, 2012.
"And that has also resulted in lawless activity occurring throughout the region, including artisanal mining, which is having grave effects on the nature of the forests — and on people," Walston said. "The poisoning of waters, the extraction of materials — and Grauer’s gorillas have suffered as a part of that.”
Rebels running free
What miners seek — to the detriment of gorillas and other wildlife — are so-called rare earth minerals used in electronics manufacturing.
Keeping this mining out of Kahuzi-Biega and other DRC national parks has been difficult.
The Wildlife Conservation Society said about 200 park rangers have been killed in the past 20 years.
“The rangers have not been able to operate in the parks for most of the last two decades," University of Stirling primate researcher Liz Williamson said. "The fact that it has been so unstable has allowed rebels to become established in these areas. And that is what needs to come under control.”
The Congo Research Group at New York University said there are at least 70 armed groups operating in the eastern DRC, which have displaced about 1.6 million people. Major forces there include the Ugandan ADF and LRA, the Rwandan FDLR, and a wing of Burundi’s FNL.
The conservation society's Andrew Plumptre said removing these armed units is a top priority if the region and its dwindling gorilla population are to be stabilized.
"The key thing we want the [DRC] government to do is work on disarming these rebel groups and making sure that they are taken out of these protected areas," Plumptre said.
FILE - A Grauer's gorilla cradles a youngster in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in South Kivu, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Nov. 5, 2012.
Plumptre said one option could be to employ some of the rebels to protect the parks, to keep them away from poaching or illegal mining.
Poached for meat
Whether people are insurgents, miners or just hungry locals, they need to eat. And that makes the large Grauer’s gorilla an attractive target for poaching, despite DRC laws prohibiting these apes being taken.
The conservation society's Walston said killing for meat is driving these apes and other wildlife to the brink.
“Unsustainable extraction of bushmeat leads to collapses in populations of threatened species," he said. That's detrimental to those species and conservation in general, and to the human population as well, he said.
The NGO World Wildlife Fund’s Bas Huijbregts outlined his and other conservationists’ plan to help Grauer’s gorillas survive: “First of all, disarming the miners that are illegally settled in those core areas. Secondly, by better training and equipping — and motivating — rangers to protect the last stronghold of the Grauer’s.
"Thirdly is to work more closely with communities that live near those Grauer’s, to provide them with alternative livelihood opportunities so they don’t have to hunt those species for their survival. And, lastly, to get this illegal mining out of the areas where they are currently operating," Huijbregts said.
Huijbregts and other conservationists said that without such action, the only gorillas people might see in the future could be in zoos.