Wildlife products, including animals, as well as natural resources such as timber and minerals have and are still funding conflicts around the globe. Apart from the loss of species and income, habitat loss can lead to a vicious circle of further species loss.
The Democratic Republic of Congo’s great apes are particularly affected by conflict. The United Nations, in addition to supporting efforts to end armed violence, protect civilians and spur political stability, is also an active player in the environmental battle to save the great apes, the region’s iconic local totem and a vital link in its biodiversity.
“There has always been a fear that armed conflict would damage the great apes – bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans – and even wipe out certain wildlife,” said Douglas Cress, programme co-ordinator at the Great Apes Survival Partnership (Grasp), led by the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).
“In terms of natural resources, the DRC is one of the most potentially lucrative regions in all of Africa. The country has rich reserves of timber, gold, tantalum (used in cell phones and computers) and potentially also oil.
“The fight for possession of these resources, as well as land and political power, is a major cause of conflict with rebels such as, most recently, M23, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and others that have emerged from the area or entered from neighbouring countries.”
Conflict degrades the natural environment
“In turn, conflict endangers the natural environment. All natural resources suffer during conflict. It’s not always a certainty that wildlife will be exploited to death, often it’s just exploited,” said Cress.
To stave off extreme degradation of the DRC’s natural environment, the UN and its partners are working with international law enforcement, governments and local communities to save wildlife and habitat.
The forests of the DRC represent half of the total area of tropical rainforest in Africa, providing shelter for great apes, such as the mountain gorilla and the bonobo, as well as the okapi and elephant, among other mammals and countless species of birds and reptiles.
The country’s rich biodiversity led to five natural sites – Garamba, Kahuzi-Biega, Okapi, Salonga, and Virunga – being designated to the UNESCO World Heritage List between 1979 and 1996 and since then, with nearly all species of animals declining, to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
The dangers come from traditional conservation threats – deforestation, mining and bush-meat hunting. But they are also fuelled by armed conflict, leaving hundreds of thousands of people homeless and forcing them to survive in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps on scarce natural resources.
The Virunga Mountains and the gorillas that migrate through them – among the great apes the UN-partnership is striving to save –fall geographically in the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda.
The countries, each of which has had its share of violent turmoil, have worked out a tripartite agreement to share revenue from tourists eager to explore the primate habitat.
The DRC has wanted to imitate the multi-million dollar ecotourism industry developed in Rwanda and to a lesser extent in Uganda, but instability is a hindrance. There are reports of rebels acting like forest rangers and taking tourists into the mountains, but recurrent fighting makes the area inaccessible to most would-be visitors.
Virunga Mountains – gorilla stronghold
“The eastern DRC strip passing through Goma that everyone’s been fighting over is tricky because of the Virunga Mountains right there,” Cress noted, referring to the struggle between M23 and the DRC national forces (FARDC), on the periphery of what is Africa’s oldest park.
“That’s the stronghold of mountain gorillas and it’s also the prime territory everyone wants a piece of.”
In addition to instability which cuts off access for tourists, it also prevents rangers and researchers from tracking gorilla families to check on health and safety.
At least 100 gorillas have been killed in Africa through illegal trade since 2005, part of the more than 22 200 estimated great apes lost from the wild during that time according to Grasp figures based on confiscation records, international trade databases, law enforcement reports and arrival rates from sanctuaries and rehabilitation centres.
These figures are just the tip of the iceberg. At least 2 972 great apes are lost from the wild each year, according to the “Stolen Apes: the illicit trade in chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos and orangutans” report.
Gorillas illegally sold to a zoo in Malaysia in 2002 reportedly went for $400 000 each according to the report. Orangutans can fetch up to $100 and live chimpanzees sold at $50 can be marked up as much as 400% by middlemen.
African great apes – chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos – are listed on Appendix I of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). Appendix I lists highly endangered species at risk of extinction and prohibits any commercial international trade of these species.
Jane Goodall, a UN Messenger of Peace, has for decades advocated for conservation of the region’s habitats.
“The forests of the DRC are of supreme importance in the fight to slow down climate change and to protect the rich diversity of flora and fauna. Eastern DRC provides crucial habitat for chimpanzees and gorillas, both of which are endangered. Unfortunately years of armed conflict in the region have hindered conservation efforts,” she said.
In the northern DRC, alleged involvement in elephant poaching and ivory smuggling by the Lord’s Resistance Army led the UN Security council to call for an investigation which CITES secretary-general John Scanlon said was “historic” as it reinforced the links between illicit wildlife trafficking and regional security in Africa.
Sophisticated weapons used to “execute” wildlife
In May UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the Security Council armed groups in DRC were using increasingly sophisticated weapons to “execute” wildlife.
“Poaching and its potential linkages to other criminal, even terrorist, activities constitute a grave menace to sustainable peace and security,” he said.
Last week UNEP and Interpol held a joint conference in Nairobi on international environmental compliance and enforcement directed at individuals. This includes rebels operating in the DRC. They are largely decommissioned soldiers trained in military tactics with access to sophisticated weapons.
“The over-riding message from the conference was there is a gap in needed resources.
“We are under-funded. The bad guys are getting smarter and we are lagging behind. Until we think the way they do, with the resources, technology and tools they have we are never going to catch up,” Cress said.
Among the most pressing threats great apes face is loss of habitat. At the current rate, they lose up to five percent each year of habitable area. By 2030, Grasp predicts that less than 10 percent will remain, according to statistics in “Stolen Apes”.
With ongoing conflict in the DRC, environmental protection lags behind the humanitarian needs of hundreds of thousands of traumatised people displaced, some sexually assaulted, most forced to flee with a only bag of their belongings – but there are signs of change in local perceptions of importance of these animals.
The Virunga National Park has suffered environmental impacts from the fighting between rebels and government troops since the late 1990s when about a million people were settled in displacement and refugee camps by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) on its periphery.
“We did a GPS co-ordinate analysis and found some camps were inside the park boundaries or on the park boundary. The first impact is definitely habitat loss,” said Johannes Refisch, Grasp project manager.
He maintains the best way to safeguard natural resources is to have law and order in place and working.
“There are rules and legislation but they are not enforced. There are also many beneficiaries of corruption,” he said using the illustration of a circle where illegal revenues from natural resources go to buy more weapons which yield more power which yields a need for more exploitation of resources.”
“It’s not about saving that great ape or elephant or specific tree species. You begin to lose not only natural resources – you begin to strip away revenue from the host country. The illegal ivory is not coming back to government, it’s stolen. It promotes instability and comes down to governments being held at gunpoint,” Cress said.