Gorilla Airlift Sparks Calls for Stronger Controls on Natural Resource Smuggling in Greater Congo Basin and Beyond

World Environment Day-Many Species, One Planet, One Future

Kigali - Nairobi, 4 June 2010 - UN Peacekeepers in DR Congo are planning a new gorilla rescue airlift next month, in what may be one of the first operations conducted under their new mandate. As of 1 July, the UN Peacekeeping Mission in DR Congo (MONUC) will convert to a stabilization mission, as per a recent decision by the UN Security Council.

The rescue is being carried out amid concerns for the future of the endangered species and recommendations by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and INTERPOL to strengthen the capacity of the UN Mission and law enforcement bodies to combat cross-border environmental crime in the Greater Congo Basin and gorilla range states.

The operation, planned for mid July, is the second to be conducted by UN forces in DR Congo as part of a wider effort to combat the illegal cross-border trade in baby gorillas, which has intensified in recent years with the proliferation of armed groups in the region.

The first rescue mission was conducted by the peacekeeping mission (MONUC) on 27 May, when four eastern lowland baby gorillas, seized from poachers, were flown to safety by UN helicopters to a sanctuary in Kasughu in North Kivu, DRC. The second airlift will involve transporting another six babies to the sanctuary. Together, the orphaned gorillas are hoped to form a new "family" of ten. The ultimate objective is to rehabilitate the gorillas and to reintroduce them back in their natural environment.

Last Stand for the Gorilla

According to the UNEP report, entitled "The Last Stand for the Gorilla", unless urgent action is taken to strengthen the enforcement of environmental law and counter poaching, endangered gorillas may largely disappear from the Greater Congo Basin, in the next fifteen years.

Previous projections by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), made in 2002, suggested that only 10 per cent of the original ranges would remain by 2030.

These estimates now appear too optimistic, given the intensification of pressures including illegal logging, mining, charcoal production and increased demand for bushmeat, of which an increasing proportion is ape meat.

The Greater Congo Basin, including the Virunga mountain range, is considered one of the world's most resource-rich but troubled regions.

Silent Victim

In the context of recent wars and continued unrest, the environment remains the silent victim of conflict in the region.

Natural resources are systemically exploited or illegally-harvested. Minerals such as diamonds, gold, cassiterite and coltan - used in laptops and mobile phones - as well as timber, end up crossing borders, passing through middle men and companies before being shipped onto countries in Asia, the European Union and the Gulf.

With militias controlling border crossings, profits made from such illegal trade - worth several hundred million US dollars annually - are central to fuelling the conflict and the commission of serious violations of human rights and the environment. The report estimates that militias make between $14 million and $50 million on road and border taxes alone.

In March, UNEP called on the international community to expand MONUC's capacity to combat such violations and halt environmental crime by strengthening the Mission's mandate to encompass security and control of border crossings - with regard to the export of illegally exploited natural resources financing the conflict.

Crucial to the task is transboundary collaboration with national and international law enforcement agencies and the mobilization of resources to support law enforcement, including investigations of complicit companies in recipient countries

Success Story

Within the Virunga mountain range - which includes Rwanda, DRC and Uganda - especially in Rwanda's Volcanoes Park, the population of the critically endangered mountain gorillas has increased by 17% over the past fifteen years, thanks to intensified patrolling and conservation efforts carried out by the government and supported by international conservation groups and UN agencies.

The total number of mountain gorillas worldwide has now reached an estimated 700 individuals.

According to Juan Carlos Bonilla, of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International., "The only type of gorilla that is known to be increasing is the Mountain Gorilla found in areas governed by intense transboundary conservation."

The success of the Virunga experience is attributable to intensified law enforcement and the implementation of wealth-sharing agreements between range states, including the sharing of revenues from ecotourism and gorilla-related activities.

 

A Future for the Gorillas and the People

The fate of the great apes is closely tied to the fate of humans. Gorillas inhabit some of the last remaining tropical rainforests - ecosystems that not only assist in supplying water, food and medicine but also play a global role in carbon sequestration, thus combating climate change.

Speaking in Kigali, the capital of the 2010 World Environment Day celebrations, Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director said,

"The fragile recovery of mountain gorilla populations in the Virunga range and Volcanoes National Park is evidence that success is possible. But the overall resources and regulatory frameworks available for the enforcement of overall cross-boundary conservation need to be stepped up."

He added, "Violations of international environmental law during armed conflicts is a serious concern in the Greater Congo and beyond. Species and ecosystems, already under stress, can become seriously over-exploited for a variety of reasons. The first responsibility of the UN is towards the people and communities affected. However, sustaining the peace will in part depend on ensuring a healthy natural resource base given its links to livelihoods, combating poverty and role in building stable societies".

Combating Environmental Crime

Christian Nelleman, lead author of the UNEP report said, "Enforcement has worked in saving the mountain gorillas in the Virungas for now. But without adequate law enforcement not only the Eastern Lowland gorillas, but also elephants and rhinos are in danger. "

He pointed out "We are observing no indication that the poaching and illegal looting of natural resources is ending. In fact, we are now observing a dramatic rise in poaching across large parts of Africa and Asia including for rhino horn, elephant ivory and other nature-based products. Strengthened law enforcement and especially support to INTERPOL is urgently needed to address this transnational crime."

David Higgins, Manager of INTERPOL's Environmental Crime Programme, said "INTERPOL can only be effective in its efforts to combat environmental crime if it has adequate international support; currently this support is growing but for some species it may be too late. Ultimately it is the responsibility of each individual country to enforce their laws and INTERPOL is there to support them in this."

"What criminals are doing to the African gorillas should not be tolerated by the global community, they are pushing a fragile population and species closer to the edge of extinction and it is everybody's responsibility to stop them before it is too late," added Higgins.

Natural Resources: the Wealth of the Poor

Gorillas live in eleven countries in Africa with some of the highest population densities, lowest literacy rates and standards of living and continued armed conflict. The challenges that such intense poverty and insecurity bring to wildlife conservation can be overwhelming. Poverty reduction, healthcare and promotion of conservation education are irrevocably linked to environmental protection.

Steiner said, "Tackling poverty, by minimizing the theft of natural resources and maintaining the multi-billion ecosystem services of the tropical forests, is central to efforts that aim at reversing the loss of economically and culturally-important wildlife."

A Way Forward

Securing the necessary funds to support law enforcement and trans-boundary collaboration on environmental crime during time of conflict is a responsibility not only for all countries in the Greater Congo basin but for the international community at large.

As MONUC's peacekeeping mandate comes to an end with the withdrawal of up to 2000 troops by the end of June, it is hoped measures to enforce implementation of environmental law will be stepped up in the region, in support of stabilization and the sustainability of peace.

Conservation can be a driver of peace and security. Any peacebuilding effort fundamentally depends on the natural resource base and its governance structure. Their damage and destruction can undermine livelihoods, act as a driver of poverty and forced migration, and trigger further conflict.

Notes to Editors

  • In Rwanda, approximately 7% of the gorilla ecotourism revenue is invested in community projects- ensuring that local communities are active partners in conservation.
  • 'The report 'The Last Stand of the Gorilla - Environmental Crime and Conflict in the Congo Basin' can be accessed at www.unep.org or at http://www.grida.no/publications/rr/gorilla, including high and low resolution graphics for free use in publications including in French for the first time.
  • The Last Stand of the Gorilla - Environmental Crime and Conflict in the Congo Basin' was financed by the Government of France and the Great Ape Survival Partnership (GRASP) established by UNEP and UNESCO. The report is released by UNEP and INTERPOL and for the first time in French on June 4th, 2010 In Kigali, Rwanda, just before World Environment Day, For more information on the Great Ape Survival Partnership (GRASP) please visit www.unep.org/grasp
  • The UN force in DR Congo, known as MONUC, is the world's largest peacekeeping operation with more than 20,000 personnel. The Security Council agreed to rename it the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in DRC, or MONUSCO, from 1 July. For more information on the UN Mission in DR Congo, please visit www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/monuc/
  • 2010 is the UN International Year of Biodiversity
  • For more information on the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International., please visit www.gorillafund.org/

For more information, please contact:

Nick Nuttall, UNEP Spokesperson, Cel.: + 254 733 632755 / +41 79 596 57 37, E-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org

Shereen Zorba, Head, UNEP Newsdesk, Cel: +254 713601259 , E-mail: shereen.zorba@unep.org

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