By Richard Tshombe
Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo
Extinction in the Democratic Republic of Congo now has a face. It’s the Grauer’s gorilla.
At a news conference on April 4 in Kinshasa, the capital of DRC, a team of scientists presented a shocking report about the Grauer’s gorilla. It was important that journalists attended, but just as important that civil society and government officials gathered together to hear the news directly from the researchers.
The report by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) documents the collapse of the world’s largest great ape, the Grauer’s gorilla, due to a combination of illegal hunting around mining sites, civil unrest, and habitat destruction.
The news from the researchers is hard to hear but impossible to ignore: There has been a 77 percent drop in gorilla numbers, from an estimated 17,000 in 1995 to just 3,800 individuals today. Grauer’s gorillas – the world’s largest gorilla subspecies, weighing up to 400 pounds – is found only in eastern regions of my country.
So very bluntly, it is up to my country to ensure that this species does not disappear.
The decline in Grauer’s gorillas can be traced back to the Rwandan genocide in 1994, which forced hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to the DRC. This in turn led to a civil war in my country in 1996. The war continued until 2003 with devastating consequences, including an estimated 5 million people killed. In addition to the human tragedy, the war took a toll on our wildlife as a result of insecurity, heightened illegal bushmeat trade, and increased deforestation.
The aim of our research was to understand the status of the Grauer’s gorilla and the aim of the report was to galvanize conservation action to reverse their decline – more specifically, to galvanize my nation to take action – and for conservation groups like WCS, FFI, and others to support these actions. And this is why I am, through all the terrible news, optimistic.
While many of us have been concerned about the likely decline in gorilla numbers, it has taken this huge scientific undertaking to provide the real evidence to make the case for conservation action. And we now have signs that all this work is leading to change.
The DRC Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development has historically been concerned mainly with the timber industry. But with this report, the minister, Robert Bopolo Mbongeza, has said: “These are no longer alarming signs; we are now facing a crisis.” Already, we are working to support the government on new, direct measures to conserve these magnificent animals.
My country has many challenges, but we are capable and committed. While our conservation efforts will need the support of the international community, the solution to the future of Grauer’s gorillas lies within our country and in our hands.
I am proud to be part of a generation of Congolese conservationists who, together with a worldwide network of wildlife organizations, have never been better equipped and more committed to save this iconic species.
Richard Tshombe is Country Director for the Democratic Republic of Congo program at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).