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People and Wildlife Are Both Casualties of Illicit Mining

Central Africa’s natural treasures are a blessing. They are also a curse.

The vast Congo Basin — spanning six Central African countries – supports more than 10,000 animal and 600 tree species, many of which are unique to this area. The region represents the second largest contiguous moist tropical forest in the world and provides critical habitat to the last populations of several globally important species, including African forest elephants and three of the world’s four species of great apes.

Despite its vast size and relative intactness, Congo’s forest area and wildlife are under severe threat. Between 2002 and 2011, forest elephants experienced a devastating 62 percent population decline and a 30-percent loss of range. The Grauer’s gorilla — the world’s largest primate — which is only found in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), suffered staggering declines. In the span of one generation, their numbers dropped by 77 percent across their range. In Kahuzi-Biega National Park, they fared even worse — plummeting by 87 percent. Rangewide, they are now considered critically endangered. These losses are often associated with areas of uncontrolled, illegal mineral extraction.

Illegal gold mine in the buffer zone of Minkébé National Park, Gabon (2011). Photo credit: Richard Ruggiero/USFWS.

We are witnessing a growing global awareness of the social upheaval caused by illegal sourcing of minerals and metals from Central Africa. Illicit mining has been a sustaining force, and sometimes the initial catalyst, for violent armed conflicts and human rights abuses across the region.

What is less known is the devastating effect illegal mining can have on wildlife, including species the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a legal mandate to protect and conserve, such as African elephants and great apes.

Illegal mining sites create an influx of people into sensitive, remote habitats. These people have cash on hand and a need, desire, and willingness to pay for animal protein. This is a deadly combination for local wildlife, with these sites quickly turning into commercial markets for bushmeat, or wild-sourced meat, surrounded by an overhunted landscape, devoid of wildlife. In such environments, large mammals are the initial prime targets and the first to disappear. Hunting activity rapidly cascades to smaller mammals and freshwater fishes, emptying forests and rivers.

Elephants are an easy first target where illegal mines are located. They provide large quantities of bushmeat and ivory that is effortlessly integrated into the flowing network of illicit activities, for which illegal mines are a critical node.

As noted in a previous blog, illegal mining in and around Gabon’s Minkébé National Park is an especially egregious case that has produced devastating impacts on elephants. The illegal mine, with approximately 7,000 workers in 2011, saw the slaughter of more than 10,000 forest elephants during the four preceding years.

We were alerted to this problem because of an ivory seizure made in Philadelphia that we were able to connect with a broader Service investigation into a smuggling operation in the United States, and partially trace ivory from this seizure back to Minkébé. Through groundbreaking DNA testing of seized ivory, Sam Wasser of the University of Washington and colleagues showed that 85 percent of forest elephant ivory seized globally between 2006 and 2014 originated from Central Africa’s TRIDOM landscape, made up chiefly by Minkébé.

Achieving transparency in the trade of resources out of Central Africa is critical to the survival of elephants. It is also critical to achieving human security in the region. This point, highlighted again in recent press, echoes our observations from Central Africa since at least the 1980s that unregulated extractive industries are associated with a constellation of threats to people, wild habitats, and species.

Some manufacturers rely on conflict-ridden parts of Central Africa for commodities such as diamonds, gold, tin, tungsten and coltan, a rare earth element used in the manufacture of smartphones. After jewelers and investors, the electronics industry is the third largest consumer of gold. And the DRC holds more than 60 percent of the world’s cobalt, demand for which is rising as the popularity of electric cars and rechargeable batteries grows. It is incumbent on consumer countries to trace the origin of these resources.

Across Central Africa, longstanding resource-driven conflicts involve a number of armed groups: the Lord’s Resistance Army, M23, Séléka, anti-Balaka, FDLR and Mai-Mai militias, to name a few.

In the Central African Republic (CAR), ex-Séléka rebels (former members of the Séléka rebel militia alliance who overthrew the CAR government in 2013) and their key opposition, the anti-Balaka militias, control vast territory replete with gold and diamond mines in central and western CAR. They exploit this territory to support armed incursions that further destabilize the region, and both groups have been accused of committing war crimes.

Diamonds, gold, bushmeat and timber are now the economic engines of the country, but local villages have little or no control over these resources or the benefits they provide. Instead, the countryside is dominated by warring rebels, Mbororo (semi-nomadic pastoralists), Chadian Arabs, and Sudanese herders and bands of organized poachers, often heavily armed (see Mike Fay’s blog about his most recent expedition).

As the Congolese army continues its struggle against militias in eastern DRC, the need for cooperation with consumer countries to help fight illicit mining through traceability is more urgent than ever. This means having the capability to identify and track components of a product as it moves along the supply chain, from raw materials to finished merchandise. The governments of DRC and its neighbors in Central Africa have recently called for supply chain due diligence when sourcing minerals, given the risks that internal conflicts pose to the region’s natural security, environment, and economy.

Grauer’s gorilla in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DRC. Mining for columbium-tantalite (coltan) – a rare earth element widely used in the production of mobile phones and other electronic equipment – has destroyed significant amounts of gorilla habitat and is considered by some to be a primary motivation for war among rival militias. Photo credit: Wildlife Conservation Society.
USFWS-supported protected areas facing the challenges of illegal mining. Inset 1. Mbam and Djerem National Park (MDNP), Minkébé National Park (MNP), the proposed Ogooué-Leketi National Park (OLNP). Inset 2. Bili-Uere Complex (BILI), Okapi Faunal Reserve (OFR), Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBNP). Map credit: Matthew Luizza/USFWS. Elephant range (2008) and gorilla range (2016) data from IUCN Red List. Click to enlarge.

Service Grantees’ Work in the Challenging Context of Illicit Mining

Recent Service-supported work by ecologist John Poulsen and his lab at Duke University, showed a startling loss of up to 81 percent of forest elephants in Gabon’s Minkébé National Park (MNP), one of the largest, most remote protected areas in Central Africa. In 2011, Gabon’s authorities removed more than 6,000 illegal immigrants from an illegal gold mining camp in Minkébé. This mine, in the park’s buffer zone, acted as a hub for a number of criminal activities, including poaching, and other, smaller mines were operating within the park itself. The Service has since supported Gabon’s National Parks Agency (ANPN) in conducting aerial surveillance of its national parks and buffer zones to respond to signs of mining and other unauthorized activities.

DRC’s vast Bili-Uere Complex (BILI) was home to some 100,000 forest elephants in the 1970s and still has enormous potential as a refuge for wild species and habitats – one of our partners encountered more than a dozen small-scale mining sites (gold and some diamond) during faunal surveys conducted between 2010 and 2012. Bushmeat hunting spread as wildlife was being depleted near mining centers in the region’s western and northeastern regions. Through USFWS support, guards from the Congolese National Park Authority, Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), were installed at a base in Bili-Uere, and a workshop with representatives from the district level, national police, local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society was convened to tackle illegal mining and bushmeat hunting.

Our ongoing support for Republic of the Congo’s proposed Ogooue-Leketi National Park (OLNP), a 35,350-square-kilometer transboundary landscape, has assured the presence of researchers and surveillance and anti-poaching patrols that help protect key forest elephant sites in Bateke Plateau. Forest clearings, or bais, are monitored from platforms to deter poachers. An emerging challenge is that trained ecoguards are leaving Bateke to work in the recently opened Zanaga iron mining concession. This points to another impact of mining: Conservation jobs must now compete with mining jobs. Where conservation jobs play a role in helping secure a region, mining can result in insecurity, especially if supply chains are not carefully monitored and analyzed.

In DRC’s Okapi Faunal Reserve (OFR), designated in 1996 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Service has supported ranger patrols and law enforcement activities to reduce forest elephant poaching. This landscape holds DRC’s largest known population of forest elephants and a high diversity of both ungulates (including the rare and unusual okapi, a relative of the giraffe only found only in the DRC) and primates. But illicit activities, including poaching and illegal mining, have had detrimental impacts. In 2015, 124 miners were evacuated from the reserve and seven mining and poaching camps were dismantled. Within a year, illegal mining activities resumed in most camps because of multiple attacks on the reserve by armed militias that took the lives of two ecoguards; management activities were temporarily suspended.

A chronic state of insecurity in OFR is tied to a number of armed militias that actively exploit natural resources, including gold, ivory and precious gems. Our grantees have emphasized that these armed groups are destabilizing the reserve.

In Mbam and Djerem National Park (MDNP), Cameroon, industrial projects, including bauxite mining, are also a major threat to wildlife. The infrastructure development associated with these activities brings in migrant workers who often exploit the forest for food and additional income, leading to the development of new bushmeat markets and the subsequent, rapid decline of species of conservation concern, including forest elephant, chimpanzee and giant pangolin. To help secure wildlife in the park, Service partners are improving surveillance (including night patrols), establishing new outposts, and engaging local stakeholders.

In DRC’s Kahuzi-Biega National Park (KBNP), years of insecurity caused by civil conflict largely prevented conservation activities, particularly in the rebel-held lowland sector. Illegal hunting of gorillas, associated with rebel groups and illegal mining, has devastated gorilla populations. To help secure the park’s habitat and its wildlife, Service partners are strengthening law enforcement to tackle illegal mining and hunting, including by collecting intelligence, establishing ranger posts, and increasing mobile patrols.

Assuring Human and Wildlife Security

As conservationists who care about wildlife, we share concerns about the plight of African elephants and our closest relatives, the great apes. However as consumers, we are often unaware about how our policies and purchasing power may be contributing to their demise and even fueling conflicts. Illegal mining and trade in minerals exploits opportunities of the larger global trade system to everyone’s detriment. The minerals we wear and use, including the components of our smartphones, batteries and cars, have become essential components of our lives. It is on us to ensure that we source these responsibly for a safer, better world.

To find out more about what you can do, please visit our website.

Richard Ruggiero. Credit: FrankKohn/USFWS

Richard Ruggiero is the chief of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation. He arrived in Africa in 1981 as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Republic. During his almost two decades on the ground, Richard also worked in Kenya, Zimbabwe, the Republic of Congo, and Gabon. Although elephants are still the centerpiece of his work, he also focuses on protected area management, helping to build the capacity and collaboration of African conservationists, and addressing the threat posed by illegal international wildlife trade. He wrote this blog with AAAS Science and Technology policy fellows Matthew Luizza and Katarzyna Nowak.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Geographic Society.