Tag Archives: coltan

Ian Redmond – Fish and gorillas

August 28th – Imagine you are an ant watching the ripples of a small mountain stream flowing over pebble – that is how you feel looking at giant standing waves of the Kinsuka Rapids, formed as the smooth wide waters of Stanley Pool squeeze through the narrow exit with tremendous force, en route for the Atlantic at Banana. The Congo River is unlike any other in this regard – instead of broadening into a gentle estuary or delta in its lower reaches, this immense volume of water powers through a deep crack in the rock.   

Shovelling sand near standing waves, Kinsuka Rapids, Kinshasa, DRC, small. Picture Ian Redmond.

In the foreground, battered lorries are being filled with sand by gangs of men with long-handled shovels.  Kinshasa is witnessing a building boom as stability brings investment, and the massive sand-banks are bit by bit being converted into a high-rise city.  I asked my host Melanie if she would like to say something about the links between fish and gorillas, and with the rapids behind her, she gave a great YoG interview.  “Everything that happens in the forests of the Congo Basin ends up in the river” she pointed out, “and if you lose the forests, you lose most of the fish in the river, and also in the in-shore marine fisheries that feed so many people.  So, to save the gorillas, you save the forests… and so save the fish.  It is all connected.”   What better message for the Year of the Gorilla?  

Dr Melanie Stiassny links fish and gorillas, Kinsantu Rapids, DRC side, small. Photo Ian Redmond.

Any study in a little-known habitat is likely to yield species new to science (usually well known to local people but not yet formally described) but I had heard that Melanie had found a fish so unlike any other that it needed not only a new species and genus, but a new Family. But despite jokes about fishermen’s tales, she admitted it was quite a small fish – exciting news for ichthyologists nevertheless.

By chance, one of the ichthyologists’ neighbours turned out to be Inogwabini, one of Congo’s foremost field scientists, now working with WWF.  He gave me a lift into the WWF offices, which conveniently were in the same compound as UNEP, and he also gave a bi-lingual YoG interview.  Ino had taken part in the census of Eastern Lowland Gorillas in the early to mid-1990s which came up with the widely quoted 1996 estimate of 17,000 (+or- 8,000), 86 per cent of whom lived in the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and surrounding forests.  One of the big questions hanging over gorilla conservation in the DRC is how many of these animals have survived both the coltan boom at the turn of the century (see http://www.bornfree.org.uk/animals/gorillas/conservation-research/) and the on-going occupation of the lowland sector of the park by armed militias who fight to control the lucrative flow of minerals?  

Inogwabini, Congolese conservationist with WWF, Kinshasa, small. Photo Ian Redmond.

Thanks to the monitoring of 11 gorilla groups in the 600 square km montane sector by ICCN with support from WCS (now aided by a grant from the Spanish Government through GRASP), we know that the number in this relatively well-controlled sector was reduced by half during the conflict, but is recovering.  The lowland sector (ten times bigger) is not yet secure for census work, and the fear is that the decline will be greater than in the montane sector.

Across the Mighty Congo (and even mightier bureaucratic hurdles)

After making the best of these opportunities for meetings and YoG interviews, I tried one more time for an Angolan visa. No luck – if only this honorary Ambassador title came with a diplomatic passport, there’d be no problem and the visas would be free!

Crossing the Congo River by ‘Canoe Rapide’ takes but a few minutes; getting through the various stages of buying a ticket (there are several competing companies), having your bags checked, declaring your currency and avoiding contributing to the daily income of everyone standing within a radius of five metres, while being jostled by muscular stevedores with massive loads on their heads all shouting loudly, can take an hour or more on each side if you don’t have someone to guide you through the ‘protocol’.  It is the sort of busy scene one would love to capture on video, but the mere hint of a camera emerging from bag or pocket would add yet hours to the ‘protocol’ and likely cost an arm and a leg, so you, Gentle Reader, will have to use your imagination!

Speedboat to Brazzaville Beach, small. Photo Ian Redmond.

It was late afternoon by the time I walked out of the warehouses that serve as customs offices on the famous Brazzaville Beach.  My old friend Dr Dieudonné Ankara met me – he is the GRASP Focal Point for the Congo Government and Scientific Advisor for Congo to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and he was the one who initiated Congo’s proposal to list all gorillas on the CMS Appendix 1 (before that, only Mountain Gorillas were listed), so in a way, the whole Gorilla Agreement and YoG campaign stem from his work.

Taking one of the ubiquitous green taxis that make getting around Brazzaville so easy, we went first to the Wildlife Conservation Society office to meet Dr Trish Reed, a veterinarian working on monitoring ape health who had been at the Entebbe workshop the week before. She had kindly offered the use of a spare room and logistical help for me to get around Congo.  Unfortunately, the timing was wrong – the director of WCS Congo, Paul Telford, was in South Africa with Minister Djombo, seeking investment for Odzala National Park, and no vehicles were heading out to projects. 

It seemed that the chances of my visiting the more remote gorilla habitats in Congo were, well, remote.  Instead, we called the newly appointed Focal Point of the Gorilla Agreement, Mr Florent Ikoli, and he suggested an immediate meeting.   Florent is also the Conservator of the Lésio-Louna Gorilla Reserve where the Projet Protection des Gorilles (PPG) is based.   

PPG is the pioneering collaboration between the UK-based Aspinall Foundation and the Ministry of Economic Forestry, which is rehabilitating confiscated orphan gorillas back into the wild. Its origins go back to the efforts of the late Yvette Leroi, who began rescuing baby gorillas from traders in the 1980s, and who I met on my first visit to Brazzaville in 1989, on an investigation into this trade for  the International Primate Protection League (www.ippl.org).

We drove over to the modest PPG Brazzaville office and I noted the minibus outside, beautifully painted with scenes of forests and gorilla families, clearly used for conservation education.  On the wall inside were posters and leaflets with the equally effective message that ‘baby apes + cash = PRISON’ – with a pair of hand-cuffed wrists to hammer home the point.  This campaign to stop the illegal trade in baby apes is also backed by other GRASP partners (JGI, LAGA and WCS) as well as the Ministry.  It is an essential adjunct to the more widely publicised and photogenic task of caring for the orphans.   To find out more about a related project on Wildlife Law Enforcement (supported by the YoG) for which you can donate through this blog, click here.

Orpans like this one, be they gorillas or chimps, need urgent help. The YoG supports a wildlife law enforcement project. Picture by Ian Redmond.

Florent gave us a brief summary of the success of the reintroduction work: so far eight babies have been born in the wild, and although sadly two have died, this is not considered unusual for first-time mothers (some studies report up to 40 per cent infant mortality in natural gorilla populations).  If all goes well, this disparate group of gorillas (including some born in Kent at Howletts and Port Lympne Zoos) will be the founders of a new free-living population in habitat that hasn’t seen a gorilla in decades.  Moreover, the communities are fully supportive of the project (perhaps now realising the value of what they had lost) and are already beginning to see benefits from the tourism that the gorillas attract.

As for visiting the site, this time I was in luck. Repairs to a project vehicle should be finished by the next morning, so I could get a lift.  And two groups of tourists were expected over the weekend, so a lift back on Sunday seemed likely too. 

My weekend was set, and I would see gorillas in Congo – just not the ones I still yearn to see up north, around Odzala and Nouabali-Ndoki National Parks, wading in and feeding on water plants while elephants and sitatunga stroll by in the bai.  Next time perhaps?

Coming soon:

29th – 31st August – PPG and PALF – Bottle-fed babies and prosecuting the traders

1st – 3rd September – Visa purgatory and visible progress towards LSD bushmeat.

Read Ian’s previous post here!

14th August – Miners and minors

Posted on behalf of Ian Redmond. 

The biggest threat facing all the large mammals in Kahuzi-Biega NP is illegal hunting for the bushmeat trade. In the illegal mining camps in the park, miners who spend their days doing hard physical labour need protein.  They buy bushmeat from teams of hunters who comb the forest for animals and trade meat for minerals – so much ore bartered for so much meat.  Traditionally the Bashi people of this area do not eat ape meat, but it seems that in the mining camps, traditional taboos are swept aside in the turmoil of war and the desire for profit.  And as numerous reports have observed, from NGOs such as Global Witness right up to the UN Security Council, those profits are used by the militias who control the mines to acquire weapons and ammunition.  For the miners themselves, if the choice is between ape-meat and no meat, it is hardly surprising they choose to eat – as John Kahekwa, founder of the Pole Pole Foundation is fond of saying ‘an empty stomach has no ears’.

Kalimbi artisanal mine, Eastern DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

I was keen to meet some of the miners, but the lowland sector of the park is still under the control of ‘negative forces’.   After clearing our plans with MONUC yesterday, we drove instead to Kalehe today, along the lake-side road with stunning views of islands and inlets.  The mine we had arranged to visit was extracting a tin ore called cassiterite rather than the better known coltan, but both minerals are used in the manufacture of electronic devices.  We were accompanied by a government security man from Bukavu, and after meeting the Kalehe local authorities, another one from there.  Finally we met the chief of the village near the mines, and he too decided to accompany us.  We drove a few more kilometres to a steep-sided valley with sides scarred by mining waste.  Down in the valley, the stream had been repeatedly dammed and diverted to produce small alcoves with waterfalls to wash the ore.  Clusters of people were shovelling gravel or swishing it with their hands to release the sediment which was carried downstream.  The sediment-filled water was in stark contrast to the clear mountain streams that flowed down the hill before meeting the mine tailings.

Modifying stream flow to wash cassiterite, Kalimbi, E.DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

Many of the people in the stream-bed were clearly teenagers, some even younger. Mines in eastern DRC are notorious for using child labour, but although many of these miners were minors, to be fair it was the school holidays and like teenagers everywhere they were working to earn a few bob.  The presence of mothers with babies and people of both sexes and all ages carrying sacks and washing ore gave it the feel of a sort of community mine.  There was no apparent overseer forcing the kids to work, they seemed self-motivated and cheerful despite their obvious poverty.  At my request, the village chief asked some of them if they attended school, and of course they dutifully nodded..

Woman carrying 36 kg of Cassiterite, DRC. Photo Ian Redmond.

A smallish woman came down the steep path with a fore-head strap supporting a sack of ore on her lower back.  I helped to lift it off and – impressed by the weight – borrowed a spring balance.  It weighed 36 Kg but she laughed at my surprise and said it wasn’t particularly heavy.  We followed the path up the hillside to the mines – simple holes dug into the ground by men with torches strapped to the side of their head, wielding lump-hammers and chisels. Outside the mine entrance, a boy sat pounding ore into smaller fragments and picking out the heavy bits that contained cassiterite.  The waste was tipped down the hillside, causing the scarring we had seen from the opposite side, and promising bits were put into sacks to be taken down and washed in the stream.  Jason the camera-man followed the miners down into the ground and I followed him down the steep descent, slippery with mud.  This kind of mining is known as artisanal mining, and it doesn’t get much more basic than this.  Squatting in the dark with weak batteries in their torches (another expense to come out of the meagre earnings) men were hammering their chisels into the rock face and assessing by weight and appearance the lumps they chipped off.  After taking some video of the work, I gave my camera to one of the security men behind me and gave it a go.  I used to work for a builder when I was a teenager, so using a lump-hammer and chisel was not new to me, but in the confined space it was difficult to swing the hammer, and when I did chisel off a few lumps, the owner of the tools pointed out that there was no cassiterite in them.  It may be hot, sweaty manual work, but you need to know what you are doing if you want to make a living out of it.

Miners at work underground, Kalimbi, E.DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

Back at the cars, I interviewed the president of the Kalimbi miners, Mr Safari Kulimushi, and asked him about the laundering of illegally mined minerals.  He said that the biggest problem was the insecurity – people never knew when the next armed gang would come through killing, raping and looting homes.  Because of that, it was difficult to monitor what was going on in all the mines.  Things were much better organised when there were expatriates running the mines, he opined, because they had machines  gave training.and maintained the roads better.  We both agreed that what the area needed was investment from the industries that used the tin and tantalum being mined here – then workers would get a fair wage and be taught how to mine safely (we saw not a single helmet, pit-prop or safety device) whilst minimising the environmental impact.  

M.Safari Kulimushi, President of Miners at Kalimbi, E.DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

And if the industry investment included developing a system of certification, then the use of ‘conflict minerals’ would be reduced if not eliminated.  This is what the Gorilla Organization has been trying to do with the Durban Process (so called because they first got miners, traders and end-users around a table in Durban to hammer out an agreement and develop plans to set up a model mine to show how it should be done).  Unfortunately the process has stalled due to lack of resources – there is only so much a small NGO can do.  So again, one has to ask where is the investment from the wealthiest industries on the planet – electronic goods manufacturers who use the tin in solder and tantalum in capacitors, or for that matter the media and telecommunications companies that depend on electronic goods?

Heavy metal - cassiterite tin ore, E.DRC - Photo Ian Redmond.

The journey back to Bukavu was long, bumpy, dusty and – for most of it – dark. When the steel plate that protects the sump rattled loose for the second time, I got out my Swiss Army knife and cut another length of para-cord to tie it up again.  You are a sitting duck in such a situation, and indeed we were ambushed – but by kindness not bullets – as locals came out to see what was going on, and one man immediately volunteered to crawl under the vehicle to tie up the plate.  He didn’t even ask for payment, just shook our hand and wished us a safe journey, which is what we had – arriving back at the hotel at nearly 10.00pm for a late supper.

That’s all for now folks – tomorrow, on to Goma.

Cheers, Ian

Read Ian’s previous post here.

Year of the Gorilla Project – Eastern Lowland Gorilla – Rebuilding Surveillance and Monitoring in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, DR Congo

Another of the expert-selected YoG projects – this one focuses on the currently hardest-hit subspecies: the Eastern Lowland Gorilla.

Introduction: The Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri) has probably suffered the greatest losses, in relation to its total population, of all gorilla species over the last 10-15 years. War and conflict in eastern DR Congo are to blame for this, as militias invade protected areas making long-term, steady conservation work practically impossible, and the civilian population is forced by hardship to turn to poaching and habitat destruction for firewood.

Chimanuka, an Eastern Lowland Gorilla silverback. Picture by Ian Redmond.

Project summary: The main goals of this important project are to reinstate regular monitoring and effective surveillance of the remaining Eastern Lowland Gorilla population throughout the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in eastern DR Congo, which has been largely inaccessible to researchers and rangers due to instability and the presence of various armed factions in this region. The last reliable data on population size and distribution were recorded in 1995, and it is suspected that the population has shrunk dramatically since. New, precise information will be one outcome of this project, enabling intelligent and effective approaches to the conservation of this rare species.

Implementing partners: Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature with experienced international partners: GTZ (German Development Cooperation), WWF (Worldwide Fund for Nature), WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and MGVP (Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project).

Budget: € 283,250 for 12 months

Please support this project, crucial for the survival of the remaining Eastern Lowland Gorillas, by donating.

For all the details, please click here.

Drunk Gorillas and Jane Goodall

Some hilarious photographs were taken in Rwanda suggesting that gorillas getting drunk on bamboo juice in Rwanda

Gorilla in Rwanda

The photographs were takne by Andy Rouse who belives that Kwitonda got drunk and then had a massive hang over afterwards. I’m not sure if gorillas can get drunk on bamboo juice but the pictures are pretty stunning.

Jane Goodall saving gorillas

Jane Goodall has launched a mobile phone recycling program at Melbourne Zoo, with two objectives: to recycle coltan and cut demand for coltan mining, and to raise funds to pay for extra park rangers to prevent gorilla poaching.

“So far we’ve collected 6037 phones, which is enormous,” said Melbourne Zoo primate keeper Andrea Edwards, who was in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year as a volunteer at a primate orphanage.

“We’ve already sponsored a park ranger in the Maiko national park in the north-eastern part of the country to patrol the area. If we’ve already paid one ranger’s wage in a few months, and this program is going national, I can only imagine what the zoos of Australia can achieve when they get together,” she said.

“We can hire more rangers, give them better equipment and make it safer for them and better for the animals. It’s real and it’s tangible and it’s very, very exciting.”

Eastern Lowland gorilla numbers have dropped by 70 per cent in the last five years due to disease and poaching for meat, part of Africa’s bush meat trade.

Roughly $2 is raised for each phone. Zoos Victoria’s partner in the scheme, Aussie Recycling, can also refurbish and resell phones that are less than five years old.

For our friends in Australia, phones can be dropped off at Melbourne Zoo, Werribee Open Range Zoo or Healesville Sanctuary, or a free postage label can be downloaded at zoo.org.au.

Conflict Coltan and Cassiterite

If you have a cell phone, DVD player or use a computer then chances are that some part of these devices are made of  Coltan. Coltan and Cassiterite are minerals found mainly in the Congo where it’s exploitation has been linked to the deadly conflicts and human abuses.

coltan_mines.jpg

These mines are typically worked by children

The good news is that U.S. Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) have introduced the Conflict Coltan and Cassiterite Act, legislation which would require certification of minerals imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Their press release earlier this year

“We are witnessing a grave humanitarian crisis in Congo, and we must act now to put an end to the death and suffering,” said Brownback. “Everyday, Americans use products that have been manufactured using inhumanely mined minerals. The legislation introduced by Senator Durbin and I will bring accountability and transparency to the supply chain of minerals used in the manufacturing of many electronic devices.”

Every day in Congo, 1,500 people die as a direct or indirect result of the conflict over the mining of minerals like cassiterite and coltan; to date, the conflict has displaced more than 1.3 million Congolese and has resulted in over 5.4 million deaths.

“Without knowing it, tens of millions of people in the United States may be putting money in the pockets of some of the worst human rights violators in the world, simply by using a cell phone or laptop computer,” Durbin said. “We ought to do all we can to make sure that the products we use and the minerals we import, in no way support those who violate human rights abroad.”

The Conflict Coltan and Cassiterite Act requires the President to compile a list of armed groups in the DRC committing serious human rights violations, and prohibits the importation into the U.S. of any product containing columbite-tantalite (“coltan”) or cassiterite (tin ore) from the DRC if groups on the list would financially benefit.

Approximately 65% of the world’s coltan reserves are located in Congo. Congolese civilians are terrorized and brutalized by warring rebel groups seeking to capitalize on the mining of these minerals. Coltan is commonly used in electronic devices like cell phones, computers, and DVD players.

You can read more about this piece of legislation and what you can do on Take Action website here. According to this site, the bill has been referred to the Committee on Finance.