People and Wildlife Are Both Casualties of Illicit Mining – by Richard Ruggiero (National Geographic – May 24, 2017)

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

A Voice for Elephants – 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.

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.

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