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Species on the Brink

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Cell Phone Use Endangers Apes

LONDON, United Kingdom, July 17, 2002 (ENS) - As the debate rages about the possible health hazards to humans of cell phones, a British television documentary has aired the claim that mobile phone technology is endangering some African ape populations.

"No Hiding Place - Part Two," made by Television Trust for the Environment (TVE), and shown on BBC World in its Earth Report series, argued that extraction of the mineral coltan has put great apes at risk.

Coltan is used to make pinhead capacitors, which regulate voltage and store energy in mobile phones. The mineral is obtained mainly from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

gorilla This eastern lowland gorilla (Gorilla beringei graurei) is dependent on intact forests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Photo courtesy IUCN-World Conservation Union)

Part of the DRC territory is the remaining stronghold of the eastern lowland gorilla, populations of which are in steep decline. A United Nations initiative to save the apes could reverse damage done so far, says the film - but time is of the essence.

Assessing the prospects for the Great Apes Survival Project, launched by two UN agencies - the UN Environment Programme and UNESCO, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, TVE says the gorillas need all the help they can get. Evidence suggests that in the last five years these eastern lowland gorillas have declined by 80 to 90 percent, with just 3,000 or so animals left alive.

DRC is torn by an ongoing war among factions competing for power across the borders of Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

The rapid increase of mobile phones throughout the world in recent years has brought on a coltan boom in the eastern DRC, where 80 percent of the world's coltan reserves are found.

coltan Extracting coltan (Photo courtesy RAIN24 )

TVE says the price of coltan spiked a few years ago to $600 from its previous price of $65 a kilogram, triggering a rush of small-scale miners into the area.

"To work in the park, the miners have to pay one spoonful of coltan to the military, and one spoon to the local chief," said British primatologist Ian Redmond. "That means about $15.

There are about 15,000 people working here, each paying $15 per week to the military who control the region. That's something in the region of $1 million a month going into the pockets of the militia."

TVE says the users of mobile phones and similar electronics devices using coltan are unknowingly contributing to the apes' downfall.

Goodall Dr. Jane Goodall is founder of the Jane Goodall Institute (Photo credit unknown)

Primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall, renowned for her four decades of work with another ape species - chimpanzees, told TVE the problem has become far more serious as big logging companies, especially European ones, have opened up the forests. Bushmeat hunters who kill wild animals for sale as meat to urban customers use the logging roads to gain access to the remining wildlife.

"Hunters from the towns go along the roads and shoot everything - elephants, apes, monkeys, bats and birds," Goodall said. "They smoke it, load it on to the trucks and take it into the cities. It doesn't feed starving people, but people who'll pay more for bushmeat.

Goodall noted that pygmy hunters - after living in harmony with the forest for hundreds of years - are being given guns and ammunition and paid to shoot for the logging camps.

"The animals have gone, the forest is silent, and when the loggers finally move what's left for the indigenous people? Nothing," Goodall said.

phone British businessman uses his cell phone, probably unaware of the gorillas in the DRC. (Photo by Ian Britton courtesy Freefoto.com)

A United Nations Panel of Experts has condemned what it called the wholesale looting of the huge natural resources of the DRC by both government allies and opponents, declaring that the state is powerless - and sometimes unwilling - to stop them.

Chaired by Egyptian Ambassador Mahmoud Kassem, the panel called for a moratorium on all exports of gold, timber, diamonds, cobalt, copper - and coltan.

"Unless and until something can be done to rebuild the capacity of the state to make it strong and capable enough to control its immense territory, this rampant exploitation will continue," Kassem said of the DRC.

The TVE documentary stated that illegal logging and unsustainable commercial timber production also have resulted in a sharp decline in the numbers of another ape species - orangutans. Capturing infants - highly prized in the international pet trade - inevitably means the death of the mother, the film showed.

Unlike other great apes, orangutans, can be re-introduced to the wild. But their chances for survival are threatened by returning them to areas that have been cleared of forest.

Goodall observed sadly, "The bounty of the forest is gradually getting less and less and less."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2002. All rights reserved.

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