Illegal logging, mining, charcoal production and increased demand for bushmeat, plus deadly outbreaks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever are wiping out Congo Basin gorillas faster than the UN Environment Programme estimated just eight years ago.
The Rapid Response Assessment report, entitled "The Last Stand of the Gorilla - Environmental Crime and Conflict in the Congo Basin," finds that militias in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo are behind much of the illegal trade, estimated to be worth several hundred million dollars a year.
Gorilla in Virunga National Park (Photo courtesy Conservation International)
The report was issued at an ongoing meeting of delegates from 175 governments who are Parties to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, CITES.
David Higgins, manager of the INTERPOL Environmental Crime Programme, said, "The gorillas are yet another victim of the contempt shown by organized 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," Higgins said. "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 finds 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 on to countries in Asia, the European Union and the Gulf.
The export of timber and minerals is estimated to be two to 10 times the officially recorded level, and is claimed to be handled by front companies in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
The 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.
The insecurity in the region has driven hundreds of thousands of people into refugee camps. Logging and mining camps, perhaps with links to militias, are hiring poachers to supply refugees and markets in towns across the region with bushmeat - meat fromm wild animals, increasingly gorillas.
"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," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.
Guerillas in eastern DRC (Photo by Dan Caspersz)
"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.
The report, issued during the UN's International Year of Biodiversity, is based on scientific data, new surveys including satellite surveys, interviews, investigations and an analysis of evidence supplied to the UN Security Council.
The report does contain some positive news. A new and as yet unpublished survey in one area of the eastern DRC, in the center of the conflict zone, has discovered 750 critically endangered Eastern lowland gorillas.
The report also contains good news about the mountain gorillas in the Virungas. These animals which cling to survival in an area which is shared by Rwanda, Uganda and DRC, have survived during several periods of instability as a result of transboundary collaboration among the three countries, including better law enforcement and benefit sharing with the local communities.
The report also credits the efforts of courageous park rangers who last year destroyed over 1,000 kilns involved in charcoal production in Virunga National Park.
But more than 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 mobilized, 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 through the supply chain to the consumers.
The College of African Wildlife Management at Mweka, Tanzania near Mt. Kilimanjaro has worked with UNEP in developing new programs for anti-poaching as part of the development of the new report. The college trains rangers across the entire eastern Africa region.
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