On Morning Edition, May 2, 2001, Radio Expeditions
investigated a disturbing story discovered by NPR's Alex Chadwick during
his last expedition in northern Congo. While searching for the
mysterious Bili ape with a half-dozen of the world's leading
primatologists, Alex learned of an emerging wildlife crisis in eastern
Congo, fueled by the country's long stalemated civil war -- and by a
technology-driven rush for an obscure ore known as 'coltan:'
Thousands of gorillas and elephants are being killed.
Coltan - a contraction of the actual ore name --
coloumbo-tantalite -- is a source of the element tantalum -- an
essential coating for components of many modern electronic devices,
especially cellphones and computers. In the last 15 months, a growing
concern about the availability of tantalum led many electronic component
manufacturers to double and triple their orders for tantalum supplies.
The resulting demand drove the price of ore from about $30 a pound to
more than $400.
Miners rushed into eastern Congo, where the ore can
easily be mined with no more than a shovel. But with the influx, miners
are both destroying gorilla habitat and -- more significantly --
shooting the animals for meat.
A researcher from the Wildlife Conservation Society
surveyed part of the area of principal concern -- the massive
Kahuzi-Biega National Park. He found the elephant population virtually
wiped out, and estimated about a 50 percent drop in the previously
fairly healthy eastern lowland gorilla population.
A U.N. panel that spent months studying the situation in
eastern Congo has just released a startlingly frank report condemning
the ongoing occupation of the region by outside troops as well as local
rebel bands. The report accuses them of massive looting of natural
resources, and lists coltan as the most prominent reason for the
continuation of the war -- along with gold, diamonds and timber.
Although very few outsiders yet know about coltan and
its impact on wildlife, conservation groups are considering what actions
to take. Many think the only real hope is public pressure to force
demands for change from the companies that are buying coltan and then
selling it to electronics manufacturers. Already some industry groups
have issued calls to end purchases of coltan ore from 'environmentally
sensitive areas' of Congo. That's not enough to satisfy the U.N. panel,
however, which recommends a total boycott of Congolese ore until
safeguards can be put in place.
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