Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Let's hear it for the gorillas

I read this on Yahoo News a couple days ago, and it made my heart leap:

Report: 125,000 gorillas found in African zone

Wildlife researchers said Tuesday that they've discovered 125,000 western lowland gorillas deep in the forests of the Republic of Congo, calling it a major increase in the animal's estimated population.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, based at New York's Bronx Zoo, and the Republic of Congo said their census counted the newly discovered gorillas in two areas of the northern part of the country covering 18,000 square miles.

Previous estimates, dating to the 1980s, put the number of western lowland gorillas at less than 100,000. But the animal's numbers were believed to have fallen by at least 50 percent since then due to hunting and disease, researchers said. The newly discovered gorilla population now puts their estimated numbers at between 175,000 to 225,000.

Of course this doesn't mean that gorillas are out of danger, but it's a little bit of happy news in an otherwise troublesome tale.

If you haven't been following the plight of the gorilla as closely as my primate-loving family has been, there was a story about mountain gorillas in DCC in National Geographic a couple months ago that gives a great deal of background into what's happening. Nutshell: Gorillas are being slaughtered for, of all things, charcoal, which is formed by burning the wood of the very old trees in which the gorillas live:

One 150-pound sack of hardwood charcoal lasts the average family about a month. With more than 100,000 families living within 20 miles of the southern end of Virunga National Park, the demand amounts to 3,500 to 4,000 sacks of charcoal a day, and this does not include the needs of Rwanda, which has outlawed the production of charcoal to protect its forests.

This much charcoal cannot be transported without a fleet of trucks. The Congolese army has the trucks, and it has suppliers in the forest: the Hutu militias. A sack of charcoal sells for $25 on average. Do the math: De Merode estimates that in 2006, when gorilla tourism brought in less than $300,000, the Virunga charcoal trade was worth more than $30 million.

So you see, it's simple: If you don't have to protect the gorillas, then you don't have to protect the trees. If you can make a lot more money off the charcoal than the gorillas, and you have the backing of both the military and the militias, it's a no-brainer.

File this away in the "what the hell is wrong with our world?!" folder in your brain. And keep your eye on the gorillas.

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