The bloody civil wars that have plagued the Democratic Republic of Congo since the 1990s have produced a human death toll exceeding five million – but have also brought about one grave ecological consequence.

The bloodshed and violence have decimated the country’s Grauer’s gorillas, the largest primate in the world found only in the DRC.

A shocking new report by the Wildlife Conservation Society, along with Fauna & Flora International, documented the massive decline of the gorilla subspecies known as Gorilla beringei graueri. It pinpointed not only civil unrest and habitat loss, but also illegal hunting around mining sites for the catastrophic population collapse.

“The crash in the gorilla population is a consequence of the human tragedy that has played out in eastern DRC,” says study author Jefferson Hall, also a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.

In 1998, prior to the conflict, there were about 17,000 Grauer’s gorillas in the Congo. Today, however, there are fewer than 3,800 left – a staggering 77 percent drop.

The population decline is traced back to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when hundreds of thousands were displaced and moved to the DRC. This resulted in the civil war in the Congo in 1996, taking place until 2003 with devastating effects such as loss of about five million human lives, heightened deforestation and increased illegal bushmeat trade.

The team also cited the roots of the conflict in control of mineral rights, as the DRC is rich in minerals such as coltan, used for the manufacturing of cell phones and electronics. These minerals are within the gorilla’s range in far-flung mining sites, where miners often consume local wildlife – including gorillas – as food.

The authors added that the findings justify updating the “threatened” status of the gorilla to “critically endangered” in the IUCN List of Threatened Species. For them, it is only fitting to act now.

“Grauer's gorilla is found only in the eastern Congo – one of the richest areas on our planet for vertebrate diversity. As one of our closest living relatives, we have a duty to protect this gorilla from extinction,” urges study co-author Stuart Nixon, warning that, without prompt action, the primate could disappear in many parts in the next five years.

The authors and conservationists called for immediate action to reverse the decline, including keeping a close eye on the Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the adjacent Punia Gorilla Reserve – areas critical for the gorillas’ survival. They also recommended tackling illegal mining in protected areas, disarming militia groups in the vicinity and finding alternative livelihood for locals employed by the mining sector.

“The bright spot in all this is that we have seen, over and over again, dedicated Congolese conservationists risk their lives to make a difference,” adds Hall, with the report also revealing the threat of rebel ambushes to the lives of park guards watching the only park with increasing gorilla populations.

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