Thanks to the modern marvels of technology, saddling up to a local cell phone dealer and selecting a handheld gadget complete with a monthly service plan can be achieved in a heartbeat. This instant technological gratification — enabling us to talk to our heart’s content — has become a basic prerequisite of breathing in our modern-day society. Aside from fielding calls from Chatty Cathies who aren’t respectful of our precious minutes, the only minimally stressful thing about owning a cell phone is keeping an ever-watchful eye on reception bars and battery life. Poor us. Right on the border of war-torn Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are far more pressing concerns, at least for residents of the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve and the Kahuzi Biega National Park. This resource-laden region holds much of the world’s gold and coltan reserves, both of which are key materials necessary for cell phone manufacturing, and yet it is also the natural habitat for both Eastern and Western Lowland Gorillas, as well as bonobos, chimpanzees and various additional primate species. You can probably see where this is going. Man wants shiny stuff. Primates are in the way. Guess who loses? Thirteen years ago, an estimated 17,000 gorillas lived in the region, whereas today, that population has plunged to less than 3,000 — and significantly diminished food sources aren’t the only reason why indigenous creatures are fighting for survival. From migrant miners and Congo war militia, to bandits and rebels, the influx of people hoping to lay their eyes on the coltan prize has resulted in the decimation of massive swaths of forest and the consumption of between 3 to 5 million tons of bush meat annually, which apparently is no longer the taboo that it once was. Poachers typically target adult primates due to their size, either selling orphans as pets or allowing them to fend for themselves, which far too often results in death when rescue organizations aren’t able to intervene in time. Since there is a complete lack of law enforcement in the region due to the ongoing civil war, those who kill endangered gorillas typically suffer no consequences. Remarkably, militia groups that control mining in parts of Congo fund their activities with “an influx of arms in exchange for minerals and timber through neighboring countries, including the continued involvement of corrupt officials and subsidiaries of many multinational companies.” Thus, the vicious cycle continues on. Extracting just 1 kilogram of the highly coveted metallic ore coltan (aka columbite-tantalite) can command as much as $600, making it a highly desirable pursuit when you consider that the typical Congolese worker is lucky to make a mere $10 U.S. each month. The dull black mineral, which yields heat- and corrosion-resistant tantalum — an electrical charge-storing material that is used to produce not only cell phones, but also video game consoles, MP3 players and laptops — garnered the Rwandan army a whopping $250 million U.S., which demonstrates the sheer depth and breadth of this truly unfortunate situation. Even though this issue has received international attention and well-intentioned companies are trying to source their coltan from alternative reserves such as those in Canada or Australia, the valuable material is still unfortunately smuggled out of Africa on a regular basis. Some feel that it won’t be long before cell phones come with a gorilla-safe label, but in the meantime, each of us can ensure that Africa’s endangered primates have a fighting chance by taking a few simple actions:
- Give your unwanted/obsolete cell phones and other e-waste to a reputable recycler such as Eco-Cell so that valuable materials such as coltan can be responsibly reclaimed.
- When purchasing new gadgets, make a point of supporting companies that use verified non-African coltan supplies such as Cabot and Nokia.
- Contact the 21 biggest electronics manufacturers through this quick online form, letting them know that you will happily buy their products once they commit to sourcing certified conflict-free minerals such as coltan.
- Consider streamlining your consumption of shiny new upgrades.
- Offer a financial donation to primate rescue groups like The Gorilla Organization or GRACE – Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education that are committed to stabilizing dwindling African gorilla populations through anti-poaching, monitoring and rehabilitating efforts.