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Vanishing Species

Human Tragedy and the Looting of Virunga's Treasures: Page 13

     The future of wildlife in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and surrounding countries remains extremely uncertain.  The region is a microcosm of struggles that may soon be commonplace as human populations continue to rise and compete for dwindling land and resources.  Markets as far away as Europe and North America buy the timber, minerals and ivory that are being exploited here at the expense of the environment.  At the present rates of loss, little wilderness or natural forest will remain anywhere in the world.  The damage done to parks and reserves by tree cutting, clearing land, and killing native wildlife, especially for commercial purposes, devastates biodiversity and endangers species reliant on these refuges, which are often their last remaining habitats.  The World Conservation Union issued a report in 2001 on the urgent need to protect the world's 17,000 large nature preserves from intrusion by poor farmers, who have nowhere else to go (Revkin 2001).  Half of these preserves now have people cutting forests and tilling land in biological hotspots and areas with large numbers of endangered species (Revkin 2001).  At least 900 million people earn less than $1 per day, and 630 million live in areas of high biological diversity, according to the report's author, Jeff McNeely (Revkin 2001).  Organizations, such as Future Harvest, which co-authored the study, are attempting to help poor farmers by providing means to enrich soil through fertilizers and rotating crops to maintain corridors of undisturbed land as wildlife habitat, and to grow shade crops, such as coffee and cocoa, which maintain forests (Revkin 2001). 
 
     John Terborgh (1999), a Duke University scientist, chronicled massive destruction of parks by farmers, logging, livestock and squatters in Requiem for Nature.  This book paints a gloomy picture of wanton neglect, insufficient funding and failure by governments to protect parks and reserves, many of which harbor endangered species and magnificent landscapes.  In Peru, for example, national park officials in the capitol city were not even aware of the existence of the Cerros de Amotape National Park.  When Terborgh visited the park, he found it had been logged by the army, and cattle grazed throughout.  Yet this dry tropical forest is one of the most important centers for endemic plants and animals in the world (Terborgh 1999).  Similar tragedies are occurring in Mexico, where logging trucks leave the spectacular montane Nevado de Colima National Park loaded with giant tree trunks, and cows consume all the new tree saplings from the few remaining old alder trees (Terborgh 1999). 
 
     In Colombia's Tayrona National Park, six park officials have been killed by rebels and squatters, drug traffickers, loggers and others, who are destroying it; 20 percent of Colombia's 22.2 million acres of parkland is in the hands of squatters or has been deeded to private interests (Terborgh 1999).  Colombia has an extremely rich diversity of tropical birds and mammals, and much of the pressure on its parks is a result of the US market for drugs, which offers poor people a far greater income than they can earn through traditional farming.  The Santa Marta region in Colombia's northeast has an extraordinary wealth of birds and other species found nowhere else.  The endangered Santa Marta Parakeet (Pyrrhura viridicata); Santa Marta Sabrewing (Campylopterus phainopeplus), a hummingbird; and the Santa Marta Bush-tyrant (Myiotheretes pernix), a flycatcher, are among these (BI 2000).  Conversion of forest to marijuana and coca plantations, compounded by US-sponsored government herbicide spraying programs to kill drug crops threaten these and other species of the area.  Spraying contaminates the soil and water, and often the small aircraft destroy natural forest and traditional crops instead of the target drug crops.  In March 2001, four governors from Colombian provinces protested the $1 billion US herbicide spraying program, saying it was jeopardizing the health and food supply of farmers (Marquis 2001).  They asserted that the defoliation ruined food crops and alienated people from their national government, while not succeeding in curbing the narcotics trade (Marquis 2001).  The Santa Marta region has already lost 85 percent of its forest habitat (BI 2000).  Rebels have taken over much of the area, clearing forest for drug crops and killing members of native tribes, who have traditionally tried to protect the forest and wildlife.
 
     The Democratic Republic of the Congo is in the early stages of a similar anarchy involving rebels and forest destruction.  The late President Mobutu and other high officials acquired immense fortunes by siphoning off the nation's mineral and tax revenues and foreign aid funds.  They purchased palaces and estates around the world and lived sumptuous lifestyles.  Almost none of the revenue from the rich mineral industry went to public works, with the result that the majority of the country's people are illiterate and poorly fed and housed.  Even the streets of the capital city are unpaved and littered with trash.  Mobutu's personal fortune is estimated at $3 billion by some, and as much as $10 billion by others (Sachs and Rotberg 1997).  This country had been a territory of Belgium, known as the Belgian Congo, prior to its independence in 1960.  Over the next three decades, the United States and European nations supported Mobutu's regime, which became increasingly autocratic and corrupt.  Any opposition was quickly suppressed.  By the mid-1970s, the country neared financial ruin (French 1997).  The United States, the International Monetary Fund and the African Development Bank supported Mobutu's regime until the end of his reign (Rotberg 1997). The funds were spent mainly for military purposes and for Mobutu's personal enrichment.
 
     Strong opposition to his regime came from an opponent, Laurent Kabila, who drove Mobutu from office in 1997 and renamed the country, the “Democratic Republic of the Congo.”  Mobutu died September 7, 1997, in Morocco, where he had taken refuge.  He left the country $14 billion in debt, a sum almost three times the country's gross national product (Sachs and Rotberg 1997).  During the struggle among Mobutu's forces, Rwandans and Kabila’s soldiers in Virunga National Park, four Mountain Gorillas were killed, one silverback and three members of his family.  The International Gorilla Conservation Program reported that these Gorillas, who were tame and accustomed to tourists in Virunga National Park, were shot in crossfire when Rwandans entered the park and encountered Kabila's soldiers.  Kabila was assassinated in 2000, replaced by his son, who was educated in Tanzania.  He has moderated some of his father's extreme programs and appears to want to end the conflicts that are dividing the countries of Central and East Africa.
  
     The new government plans to rebuild 50,000 kilometers (31,000 miles) of roads (Wallis 1998).  Loggers supply local hunters with weapons, ammunition and a ready market for the meat of Gorilla, Chimpanzee and other protected and endangered species (Pearce 1995).  In a growing trend, more and more Central and West African towns are becoming dependent on bushmeat.  A study in the neighboring country of the Congo documented that a single town of 10,000 people consumed nearly 6 tons of wild animals every week (Counsell 1997).  In Gabon, some 8 million pounds of bushmeat are sold annually, half in urban areas (Tuxill 1997).  Recent research has determined that even selective logging has damaged ecosystems in tropical African rainforests, and hunting has eliminated keystone species, such as forest elephants, that spread the seeds of many forest trees (Counsell 1997).  Logging also leads to uncontrolled hunting as roads open up wilderness areas.
 
      The Democratic Republic of the Congo has major reserves of cobalt, copper, cadmium, diamonds, gold, and coltan, an extremely valuable material used in making cell phones and computer games.  The mining of these resources has damaged large areas of forest as thousands of people vie for high-paying jobs.  The mining is uncontrolled by the government, as deals are brokered between international corporations and rebel leaders or even with foreign governments, such as Rwanda, which controls the $250 million per year coltan trade.
 
     Endangered Pygmy Chimpanzees, or Bonobos (Pan paniscus), are endemic to these forests in a relatively small portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and their habitat is being decimated by loggers, who construct a maze of new roads (Kingdon 1997).  Remarkably intelligent and peaceful, primatologists consider Bonobos to be unique in behavior and ecology; they represent a profoundly important example of evolution (De Waal 1997).  Numbering only about 13,000 animals, they are declining and classified as Endangered by the IUCN.  No major reserve has been set aside for them.  Another rare animal of the region, the Bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus), a beautiful, striped forest antelope, is listed as Endangered in the eastern part of its range in Kenya, and Near-Threatened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as logging operations have surrounded the boundaries of an important reserve for this species (Counsell 1997; Hilton-Taylor 2000). 
 
     Wildlife Conservation Society biologist Fay finished his 1,200-mile voyage through many unexplored regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighboring Gabon in the spring of 2001.  He found Chimpanzees and Gorillas that had never seen humans and approached his group with curiosity, and other areas where these great apes were completely absent, perhaps as a result of ebola disease (Quammen 2001).  Impenetrable swamps and miles of tangled shrub, giant trees alive with insects, birds and lizards, abundant signs of forest elephants and buffalo, networks of streams and spectacular vistas of vast waterfalls and distant mountains still exist in the region, yet loggers, gold miners, poachers and displaced people are increasing in number, destroying this wilderness bit by bit. 
 
     A sign of the future, should logging and bushmeat hunting continue, was a traumatized, orphaned monkey, tethered on a rope in a hunter's camp.  Seen by Fay's group, its photograph appears on the cover of National Geographic (March 2001).  This young Mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx) had perhaps witnessed the slaughter of its entire family and was now in a strange and abusive environment without its fellows.  This species is threatened in the wild and listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN.  Among the largest of all monkeys, Mandrills weigh up to 54 kilograms and live only in the rainforests of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Nowak 1999).  The adult male has an extremely dramatic appearance, his face spectacularly marked with electric blue ridges beneath his eyes, set off by a bright red stripe that goes down the middle of his nose and covers a large, round nose patch surrounding his nostrils.  His face is framed by a mane of grizzled, olive-brown fur.  The female is a somewhat smaller and less flamboyant version of the male.  These are the only primates that move about on the ground in very large groups, numbering up to 600 animals.  They feed on a large variety of plants, roots, fungi, invertebrates and, occasionally vertebrates (Kingdon 1997).  Their sole habitat--undisturbed, primary rainforest--is disappearing rapidly.  They are intensively hunted in some areas for the male's shaggy mane, which is used for capes and headdresses (Nowak 1999). 
 
     Mandrills are also killed for bushmeat, which is their most immediate threat, according to biologist Jonathan Kingdon (1997).  Mandrill meat is more highly valued in these markets than beef, and hunters employ dogs, guns, spotlights, deep-freezers and trucks to harvest them, especially in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon (Kingdon 1997).  These magnificent primates may be important seed dispersers, yet research has only begun on their wild ecology.  They may vanish from their once vast realm before their role in the African rainforest is understood.
 
     These ecological and political crises were long in the making.  Decades ago, international funds such as the World Bank could have developed environmentally friendly industries, such as ecotourism, in Rwanda, Uganda and Zaire, with a large percentage of the profits going to local people.  Aid organizations could have funded or encouraged these nations to promote literacy and conservation education and to provide birth control education.  Foreign aid to Zaire by the United States and European countries could have gone toward helping the people of that country achieve economic independence, while promoting environmental protection. 


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