How Cell Phone Recycling Can Help African Gorillas

Diane Fossey, the famous American primatologist, lived in the Congo in early 1967, studying African gorillas. Fossey, after the publication of several studies and photographs of her with the gorillas, almost single-handedly brought the plight of these primates to the fore of public consciousness in the early seventies. Today, it is these gorillas, particularly the Eastern Lowland Gorillas (gorilla beringei graueri) that are on the brink of extinction because of the widespread exploitation of Congo’s minerals and the armed conflict that has been raging in the area since 1996. How does cell phone recycling help protect African gorillas?

Bloodiest conflict on earth

Congo is a country that is extremely rich in minerals like gold, silver, diamond, and coltan (columbite tantalite). Tantalum, produced from Coltan, is widely used by electronics manufacturers in the capacitors of cell phones, DVD players, and video game consoles.

The continuing civil war in the Congo today, which many experts say is the bloodiest conflict on earth, after the second world war, has already claimed 5.4 million lives since it erupted in 1996. This war is being fueled, in large part, by the money from the illicit trade of Congo’s minerals in the world market. Armed groups in the eastern Congo, where most of the minerals are found, have enlisted entire tribes – through violence, intimidation. or bribery – to help extract minerals in the areas that they control. The proceeds from the sale of these “conflict” metals are then used to purchase medicine, food, weapons, and ammunition – essentially bankrolling and keeping the bloody conflict raging unabated.

How are gorillas threatened?

Since 1996, the population of gorillas in the area has steadily declined – from about 9,000 prior to the start of the conflict in 1996 to just about 3,000 individuals today. The mines that myriad armed groups in the region are operating have paved the way for large-scale destruction of rain forests in the area, effectively decimating the gorillas’ natural habitat. These have also attracted thousands of impoverished migrants from all across the country hoping to share in the bonanza from the mines, in spite of the apparent dangers.

The influx of large numbers of human migrants to the area naturally results in more forest cover destruction and food scarcity. Gorillas are now threatened, not just by the loss of their habitat, but directly, as poachers infiltrate their remaining enclaves in search of “bush meat” to feed the hungry migrant population. It’s a destructive cycle that tragically appears to have no end in sight, except, if no solution is found soon, the total extinction of the gorillas in this part of Africa.

How can we help?

Clearly, there is a connection between the plight of gorillas in the Congo and the huge worldwide demand for cell phones and other electronic products today. The Congo conflict appears to be a Gordian knot of political and economic ramifications that African and western leaders seem unable to untangle. Simple, straightforward solutions appear to be out of hand, at the moment. One measure, however, following the law of supply and demand, will clearly affect the finances of those armed groups that are operating those mines – cell phone recycling.

Cell phone recycling, done on a global scale, will automatically lessen the demand for metals used in the production of mobile phones – like gold and coltan. Every year, more than 100 million cell phones are replaced in the United States alone, and less than twenty percent are recycled or sent back to manufacturers for responsible disposal.

“Most people don’t know that there’s a connection between this metal in their cell phones and the well-being of wildlife in the area where it’s mined,” said Karen Killmar, the associate curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo, in an interview with the National Geographic. “Recycling old cell phones is a way for people to do something very simple that could reduce the need for additional coltan…and help protect the gorillas.”

As we can see, there is a connection between cell phones, cell phone recycling, and threatened gorillas in the conflict areas of eastern Congo. Cell phone recycling may be a secondary solution, far removed from the horrific reality of the war – but it is an effective tool that all of us can wield to help end human suffering and protect wildlife in the region. Recycle phones today, and create that positive impact for the African Eastern Lowland Gorillas.