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Grauer's Gorilla by Will Purdy


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Grauer Gorilla’s
An Analysis of Humanity’s Effect on Grauer’s Gorillas in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

By Will Purdy
Nov. 11, 2014

Introduction: Grauer’s Gorilla (Gorilla beringei graueri), or the eastern lowland gorilla is an extant subspecies of the eastern gorilla (Gorilla beringei matschie) endemic to the eastern forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Grauer’s gorilla is biologically significant, in that it is the largest living primate.
According to the IUCN (2014), Grauer’s gorilla, like many of it’s great-ape relatives, is an endangered species. When searching for the reason this animal has become endangered we have no further to look than the closest mirror; adult Eastern Lowland gorillas have no natural predators other than humans.
This paper presents an analysis of humanity’s contributions from 1991 to present day towards the current endangered status of Grauer’s gorillas. The paper is organized into three main drivers of endangerment: Conflict and instability; Deforestation and environmental degradation; and poaching.
The majority of the research in this paper was collected in the Kahuzi-Biega national park located along the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

Body: Up through the mid 1990’s the population of Grauer’s gorillas was estimated to be around 17,000 individuals. A decade later in 2005, populations were estimated to be around 8,000 individuals or less (IUCN 2014). A reasonable question to ask would be, “How did this happen?” To answer this, we must backtrack to the final decade of the 20th century.
In 1991, riots broke out in major cities of the Democratic Republic of Congo, including its capital city, Kinshasa. Developed nations responded by suspending foreign aid. Revenue generating activities from tourism all but ceased as well. Rather than give in to the pressures imposed by more powerful nations, many of the DRC’s figures in formal positions of power chose not to resign and began “supplementing their income,” by means of smuggling, illegal black market operations, and increasing corrupt governmental practices (Yamigawa et al. 2009).
While government officials may have been able to keep themselves afloat financially, one can imagine that the sudden stop of income generating activities in the tourism industry, like any industry, would impose hardships on the individuals who count on said industry for a living. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the majority of this industry occurs in the Eastern portion of the country. When the money stops, one would obviously need to find another way to put food on the table for their family. Three years later in 1994, the Rwandan genocide pushed nearly a half-million individuals over the border into the heavily wooded forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern border (Yamigawa et al. 2009). Displaced people are by definition, without a home. To survive, these individuals had to make use of the resources in their surroundings. One can imagine that interactions between hungry human refuges and populations of gorillas would not fare well for the gorillas.
In 1996 the Rwandan refugees were driven from the lands they had taken up (primarily in the Kahuzi-Biega), as the first Congolese civil war began, bringing an end to the Mobutu regime in 1997. Following Mobutu’s ousting, the country was thrown into massive political instability and a second civil war erupted in 1998, lasting five long years (Yamigawa et al. 2009). During the second civil war, security officers of the Kahuzi-Biega national park were disarmed and forced to cease patrols by armed militants. When the war ended in 2003, over half the gorillas in the park were gone; thought to have been poached by the rebel groups that took up camp in the lowland sector of the park (Yamigawa et al. 2009). Fighting and civil conflict have shown to have a direct increase on deforestation and poaching. Refugees in search of shelter will cut down trees, and armed militia can fund their campaigns by selling bushmeat they’ve poached (Nackoney et al. 2014). Environmentally harmful activities that began in Kahuzi-Biega during the second civil war have continued even after armed groups left the park in 2004. Deforestation, mining, charcoal production, cattle and goat grazing, and slash and burn agriculture have all persisted if not increased (Yamigawa et al. 2009). Mining is one of the main drivers of human encroachment on the habitat of Grauer’s gorilla. In 2001, Coltan, a metal used in the production of cell phones, saw its global price soar by more than 1000%. The drastic price increase drew over 15,000 prospectors into Kahuzi-Biega in a micro-reproduction of the Klondike gold rush. The influx of individuals put an immense strain on the region (Yamigawa et al. 2009). Nackoney et al., noted that while the rate of deforestation within core forests has dropped since the war’s end in 2003, the rate of deforestation around exterior edges of forests has seen an increase (2014). This observation illustrates a key pattern of post-war human migration: local populations returning to their traditional villages in order to revitalize and increase their food production. Deforestation is a critical factor to observe when analyzing humanity’s contribution to declining gorilla populations, as Grauer’s gorilla has been found to have a very large home range. One group studied within Kahuzi-Biega was shown to have a range of 42.3 km2 (Yamigawa et al. 2009). Decreasing the amount of land available to Gorillas will undoubtedly shrink the population, confining the remaining individuals, and making them an easier target for poachers. The greatest wave of poaching observed in the DRC occurred during the second civil war. Factors allowing this wave of poaching to take place were the breakdown of protection in the park, combined with widespread famine and the spread of small arms among local populations. Most poachers engaged in the illegal activity for the purpose of preventing their own starvation, and attempting to provide a means of income during a time of conflict and political instability (Yamigawa et al. 2009). While poaching has decreased some since the reinstatement of park security in 2004, the difficult task of patrolling the entire Kahuzi-Biega area has allowed the poaching industry to continue in many parts. The poaching of bushmeat, including that of gorillas, is not solely conducted because one must do so to live, or because the poacher hopes to sell the meat. Other factors, play into the poaching of gorillas, such as cultural tradition. One former gorilla poacher said that the meat of the gorilla is actually quite delicious and sweet, unlike it’s chimpanzee relative (Peterson 2003). Gorillas are a large animal, and thus are able to feed many mouths by killing a single one. Almost all of the animal is edible, and is commonly used to produce a tasty stew. The decision whether or not to consume the gorilla seems to be one of tribal culture, with some considering the animal holy, and some considering it to be a delicacy at the top of the menu (Peterson 2003).
From an economic standpoint there’s an incentive for poaching gorillas as well: gorilla can typically fetch a much higher price than domestically raised meat when sold at “fetish” markets in large African cities. Aside from consumption, gorilla parts have uses in cultural based mysticism, such as rituals involving the grinding of the animal’s parts into a powder and rubbing it into the skin (Peterson 2003).

Conclusion: Grauer’s gorilla has had a tough go of it over the past twenty years. The total population was reduced by more than half during the Congolese civil wars, and due to increased instability and lack of institutional safeguards it has not been able to recover as it would under more ideal circumstances. Like many large mammals, Grauer’s gorilla inhabits a vast territory for its home range. Unfortunately, deforestation fueled by agriculture, mining, and increasing populations has led to a decrease in the amount of territory available for the species. Grauer’s gorilla is also threatened by cultural practices in the region, poachers looking to sell the meat for a high price, or simply locals looking for a tasty source of protein. Gorillas are the largest of all extant primates, and second closest relatives of humans behind chimpanzees. Grauer’s gorilla is the largest subspecies of gorilla making it the largest of all primates, even within its own species. Little is known about Grauer’s gorilla due to the lack of stability in the region. For example, what the hell about the biological landscape of the eastern DRC has allowed this gorilla to become so large? If we are to understand that question, and others like it, action needs to be taken immediately in order to protect this endangered species from further loss.

Works Cited

Nackoney, Janet, Molinario, Giusepe, Potapov, Peter, Turubanova, Svetlana, Hansen, Matthew C. Furuichi, Takeshi. “Impacts of civil conflict on primary forest habitat in northern Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1990–2010.” In Biological Conservation 170, (2014) 321-328.

Peterson, Dale. "Great Apes as Food." Gastronomica 3, no. 2 (2003): 64-70.

Robbins, M. & Williamson, L. 2008. Gorilla beringei. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2014.3. <>. Downloaded on 12 December 2014.

Yamagiwa, J., A.K. Basabose, J. Kahekwa, D. Bikaba, M. Matsubara, C. Ando, N. Iwasaki, and D.S. Sprague. "Long-term Changes in Habitats and Ecology of African Apes in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.” Long-term Field Studies of Primates. Berlin: Springer, 2012.

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