Do We have the Energy to Save the Gorillas?

Logging for timber, plantations or fuel, coincides with bushmeat extraction An omnipresent yet invisible threat to gorillas and their habitats, as well as to countless other species, is the ever-growing human demand for energy and its consequences.

Charcoal production is a major threat to gorilla forests in many areas, not least the Mountain Gorilla habitat in Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. To reduce this threat, solar cookers, tree-planting on farms and the spread of fuel-efficient stoves are needed. The Year of the Gorilla (YoG) is supporting a project in the Mountain Gorillas’ range which enables local residents to purchase highly fuel-efficient stoves for a low price, thereby enabling them to use less firewood, which is often taken from the very same forests that are home to the gorillas.

This threat manifests itself also through fossil fuel extraction. Oil exploration in Petit Loango wetland, Gabon, put Western Lowland Gorillas in peril, but prospecting luckily did not yield results to justify further action. The search for nuclear fuel can have similar effects.

Robert Hepworth, Executive Secretary of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of wild animals (UNEP/CMS), said: “Stopping the current overexploitation of natural resources is a key element of any strategy leading to a sustainable way of living. The forests and woodlands of Africa must play a central role in efforts to avoid dangerous climate change. There is a strong scientific case for carbon finance to make significant contributions to gorilla conservation, as gorilla range states would benefit financially from protecting their forests.”

A further worrying development is the fact that many gorilla range states are signing land deals with foreign companies for agriculture, including bio-fuels. On top of destroying the habitat of numerous species, forest degradation also means palm oil, an edible oil found in one in ten supermarket products and also increasingly being seen as a profitable bio-fuel, has a higher carbon footprint than the fossil fuels it is supposed to replace.

Beyond the immediate impact of these industries, the influx of relatively well-paid workers who can afford to frequently eat meat causes bushmeat trade to boom and gorillas to decline, as happened with the Coltan boom in Democratic Republic of Congo in 2000/2001.

Apes and other large mammals are keystone species in their ecosystems, dispersing billions of seeds, which have higher germination and seedling survival rates than seeds that just fall to ground. Ian Redmond OBE, Ambassador for the YoG said, “I am proud to be an Ambassador for the YoG. Fascinating though gorillas are because of their similarities to humans, we also need to focus on their key ecological role. They are second only to elephants in the number of seeds dispersed per unit area, and symbolise the fate of the Congo Basin forests, which the planet needs for climate stability. Save the gorillas and you save the world!”

Viewed globally, degradation and destruction of habitats not only threaten gorillas, they also worsen climate change overall. Tropical trees in undisturbed forest are absorbing nearly a fifth of the CO2 released by burning fossil fuels. The world’s remaining tropical forests remove 4.8 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions from the atmosphere each year. This includes a previously unknown carbon sink in Africa, mopping up 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2.

Numerous threats endanger gorillas’ survival. Together with the other great apes, they are most severely threatened by: habitat loss and fragmentation; hunting and the bushmeat trade; diseases and epidemics; mining; and the effects of armed conflicts. This is why the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species (UNEP/CMS), the UNEP/UNESCO Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) have joined forces to declare 2009 the Year of the Gorilla.

Angela Meder of the German gorilla conservation NGO Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe e.V. said in 2009: “This year, we celebrate our 25th anniversary. Our organization supports gorilla conservation projects through quick, unbureaucratic help. For example we are currently supporting the reforestation of a montane forest on the edge of Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.“

On May 21st, YoG Ambassador Ian Redmond and Dr. Angela Meder of German NGO and GRASP partner Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe e.V. gave a lecture entitled “Gorillas – Survival or Extinction” at the Zoological Museum König, Bonn, Germany.

Dr. Angela Meder opened with an outlook on Germany’s role in gorilla studies and the current taxonomy, some research findings and how BRD was formed and which projects it supports.

Ian Redmond then recapitulated the ‘Mountain Gorilla story’ from George Schaller and Dian Fossey (whom he knew personally) to current activities to save them from extinction through international cooperation and the Year of the Gorilla, contrasting the fragile recovery of Mountain Gorillas with the continuing decline of the other sub-species, and highlighting the importance of gorillas for intact forest ecosystems.

This was followed by Q&A and discussion with the audience. The book ‘Gorillas – the Gentle Giants’ by EMB Books (part of revenue goes to gorilla conservation) was offered for sale.

A press conference on May 22nd 2009 at Langer Eugen Tower, UN Campus Bonn, again highlighted the need to view energy consumption patterns in light of the effects they have on ecosystems and the species therein.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *