Gorillas may have largely disappeared from large parts of the Greater Congo Basin by the mid 2020s unless urgent action is taken to safeguard habitats and counter poaching, says the United Nations and INTERPOL—the world’s largest international police organisation.
In spite of previous projections by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), made in 2002, which suggested that only 10 per cent of the original ranges would remain by 2030, these estimates now appear too optimistic, given the intensification of pressures including illegal logging, mining, charcoal production and increased demand for bushmeat, of which an increasing proportion is ape meat, according to a report issued by UNEP in Doha on March 24, 2010.
According to UNEP, outbreaks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever virus are adding to concerns and has killed thousands of great apes including gorillas and by some estimates up to 90 per cent of animals infected will die.
The new report, launched at a meeting of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which took place in Qatar, says the situation is especially critical in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where a great deal of the escalating damage is linked with militias operating in the region.
The Rapid Response Assessment report, entitled The Last Stand of the Gorilla – Environmental Crime and Conflict in the Congo Basin, says militias in the eastern part of the DRC are behind much of the illegal trade, which may be worth several hundred million dollars a year.
It says that smuggled or illegally-harvested minerals such as diamonds, gold and coltan along with timber, ends up crossing borders, passing through middle men and companies before being shipped to countries in Asia, the European Union and the Gulf.
The export of timber and minerals is estimated to be two to ten times the officially recorded level, and is claimed to be handled by front companies in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
Militias—A key link
According to a statement announcing the report’s findings, illegal trade is in part due to the militias being in control of border crossings which, along with demanding road tax payments, may be generating between $14 million and $50 million annually, which in turn helps fund their activities.
It says meanwhile, the insecurity in the region has driven hundreds of thousands of people into refugee camps, while logging and mining camps, perhaps with links to militias, are hiring poachers to supply refugees and markets in towns across the region with bushmeat. Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), said: “This is a tragedy for the great apes and one also for countless other species being impacted by this intensifying and all too often illegal trade.”
“Ultimately it is also a tragedy for the people living in the communities and countries concerned. These natural assets are their assets: ones underpinning lives and livelihoods for millions of people. In short it is environmental crime and theft by the few and the powerful at the expense of the poor and the vulnerable,” he added.
Mr. Steiner said he welcomed the involvement of INTERPOL and called on the international community to step up support for the agency’s Environmental Crime Programme.
He also underlined the importance of strengthening treaties such as the Lusaka Agreement on Co-operative Enforcement Operations Directed at Illegal Trade in Wild Fauna and Flora, which operates in eight Eastern and Southern African countries in support of CITES.
The new Rapid Response Assessment report also recommends a greater role for MONUC, the UN peacekeeping operation in the DRC operating mainly in North and South Kivu.
It maintains that strengthening its mandate in terms of support for park rangers and control of border crossings, in collaboration with national customs and international bodies, could go a long way to reduce the revenue-raising activities of militias and their role in the illegal trade, which will in turn bring a peace dividend for the people of the region.
David Higgins, Manager of the INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme, said: “The gorillas are yet another victim of the contempt shown by organised criminal gangs for national and international laws aimed at defending wildlife. The law enforcement response must be internationally co-coordinated, strong and united, and INTERPOL is uniquely placed to facilitate this.”
“We are committed to combating all forms of environmental crime on a global scale. INTERPOL is mandated to do so by providing law enforcement agencies in all our 188 member countries with the intelligence exchange, operational support, and capacity building needed to combat this world-spanning crime.”
The report, issued during the UN’s International Year of Biodiversity, is based on scientific data, new surveys including satellite ones, interviews, investigations and an analysis of evidence supplied to the UN Security Council.
It has been compiled by UNEP and partly updates its assessment of 2002 entitled ‘The Great Apes—The Road Ahead’.
The 2002 report said at the time that around 28 per cent, or some 204,900 square kilometres of remaining gorilla habitat in Africa, could be classed as “relatively undisturbed”.
“If infrastructure growth continues at current levels, the area left by 2030 is estimated to be 69,900 square kilometres or just 10 per cent. It amounts to a 2.1 per cent, or 4,500 square kilometre, annual loss of low-impacted gorilla habitat across range states including Nigeria, Gabon, Cameroon and Congo,” the report said at the time.
Christian Nellemann, a senior officer at UNEP’s Grid Arendal centre who was lead author of the 2002 report and who has headed up the new one, said the original assessment had underestimated the scale of the bushmeat trade, the rise in logging and the impact of the Ebola virus on great ape populations.
“With the current and accelerated rate of poaching for bushmeat and habitat loss, the gorillas of the Greater Congo Basin may now disappear from most of their present range within ten to fifteen years,” said Mr. Nellemann.
“We are observing a decline in wildlife across many parts of the region, and also side-effects on poaching outside the region and on poaching for ivory and rhino horn, often involving poachers and smugglers operating from the Congo Basin, Uganda, Burundi and Rwanda, to buyers in Asia and beyond,” he added.
Ian Redmond, Envoy for the Great Ape Survival Partnership, established by UNEP and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), said clamping down on ape meat in the bushmeat trade would not harm local people.
“Ape meat is only a tiny proportion of the million tonnes of bushmeat consumed each year in the Congo Basin, so removing it from the diet of consumers would not greatly affect their protein intake – but it would assist in halting the current decline in gorilla populations being subjected to hunting and who, given their complex social structures, are so sensitive to the killing of individuals,” he added.
The report does, however, contain some positive news, which is that a new and as yet unpublished survey in one area of the eastern DRC, in the centre of the conflict zone, has discovered 750 critically endangered Eastern lowland gorillas.
The other good news is that the mountain gorillas in the Virungas, an area which is shared by Rwanda, Uganda and DR Congo, have survived during several periods of instability. And this is the result of transboundary collaboration among the three countries, including better law enforcement and benefit sharing with the local communities.
This is also due to the efforts of courageous park rangers who last year, for example, destroyed over 1,000 kilns involved in charcoal production in the Virunga National Park. But this has come at a price – over 190 Virunga park rangers have been killed in recent years in the line of duty, with the perpetrators thought to be militias concerned about a loss of revenue.
Both UNEP and INTERPOL say that significant resources and training for law enforcement personnel and rangers on the ground must be mobilised, including long-term capacity building.
This includes funds for supporting and investigating transnational environmental crime in the region, including the companies concerned in Africa and beyond, all the way to the consumers.
Meanwhile, the College of African Wildlife Management at Mweka, near Kilimanjaro (Tanzania), which trains rangers across the entire eastern Africa, has worked with UNEP in developing new programmes for anti-poaching as part of the development of the report.
A UNEP report published in 2007 and entitled The Last Stand of the Orangutan underlined similar threats to great apes in Asia. Since then, the Indonesian government has successfully stepped up law enforcement in many of its parks – and these improvements could be mirrored in the Congo Basin, it is hoped.
The report ‘The Last Stand of the Gorilla – Environmental Crime and Conflict in the Congo Basin’ was financed by the Government of France and the Great Ape Survival Partnership (GRASP) established by UNEP and UNESCO.
By Edmund Smith-Asante