Would you eat a gorilla? Probably not. Probably the thought has never even crossed your mind. But for people living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, eating bushmeat may be the least difficult decision they make on a daily basis.
Warfare has plagued this part of central Africa for decades. And with few ways to earn a living or feed a family in remote areas of the DRC, many people rely on working in illegal mines, which are often operated by armed militia groups. The mining takes place deep in the forest, so workers can’t exactly pack a lunch. Surviving requires finding nourishment where they can—and that means eating porcupines, Gambian rats, duikers, chimps, and Grauer’s gorillas.
Weighing up to 400 pounds, the Grauer’s gorilla is easy to track, travels in groups, and as the largest gorilla subspecies in the world, represents a hefty amount of protein—all of which has contributed to its precipitous decline over the past two decades. A new report from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Fauna & Flora International estimates that while there were 17,000 Grauer’s gorillas in 1995, only 3,800 individuals remain—that’s a 77 percent drop in the population. And every single wild Grauer’s gorilla left resides in the conflict-ridden DRC.
In 1994 hundreds of thousands of refugees began spilling into the DRC (formerly known as Zaire) from Rwanda, where mass genocide had been taking place. Not one but two civil wars between 1993 and 2003 further destabilized the country. The last of these wars ended more than a decade ago, but numerous armed guerrilla groups, including the Simba rebels, continue to vie for control of DRC’s natural resources, such as gold, diamonds, tin, tungsten, and coltan. (The latter three are used in the production of computers and smartphones, the ethical sourcing of which is a story unto itself.)
Instability and human suffering often coincide with environmental devastation, and in the DRC the situation is no different. Citizens and soldiers alike live off the land, hunting bushmeat and clearing forests for fuel and farming. And there are serious consequences for anyone who tries to oppose the rebels.
Wildlife rangers engaged in a 40-minute firefight last December after stumbling onto an illegal mining camp. Fortunately, no one was killed and the day ended with several miners in handcuffs. It doesn’t always go that way, though. While monitoring several gorilla groups in the highland sector of Kahuzi Biega in March, a wildlife ranger stopped to investigate a vehicle that had been recently looted by rebels. Guerrilla soldiers hiding among trees nearby shot and killed him. According to WCS, about a thousand illegal mines exist within the gorilla’s remaining habitat. Since 1996, between 170 and 200 rangers have been killed in the region.
The pet trade is yet another threat to Grauer’s gorillas (since 2003 rangers have confiscated 15 infants from smugglers), but Andrew Plumptre, director of the WCS’s Albertine Rift program, says bushmeat hunting remains the biggest worry of all. He says finding alternative sources of food and creating better employment opportunities in nearby communities is key to saving the primates.
Many of the miners and soldiers the conservationists interviewed for the report expressed a willingness to stop eating gorillas and other endangered species like chimps and elephants. “The local people are interested in protecting land for themselves and their culture,” says Plumptre. But first they’re going to need some options.
And they can’t come too soon, because time is not on the Grauer’s gorillas’ side. According to the report, if the gorilla population continues to be gobbled up at its current 5 percent annual rate, the world’s largest gorilla could go extinct in as little as two years.
Guinea pig farming, strange as it sounds, may be one answer. The rodents reproduce quickly, eat kitchen scraps, and are small enough for families to hide when armed bandits come to town looking to loot livestock. Guinea pigs are already a popular food source in South America, and any extra animals left over from all that breeding can be sold for profit. But a long-term solution will require more than swapping gorillas for guinea pigs.
Plumptre says conservationists are also looking into a number of ways to create new jobs in the region, from giving out micro-loans—to establish small businesses and more sustainable agriculture—to ecotourism, which would provide even more reasons to keep those big, beautiful gorillas around.
Updating the primate’s status from endangered to critically endangered may also help by generating more awareness for the subspecies and raising funds for educating local communities about the gorillas’ plight. Whatever the specifics, the best way to save these animals will be to first save people—from hunger, poverty, and war.
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