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Coltan Mining and Eastern Congo's Gorillas

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December 20, 2001 -- Even if you've never heard of coltan, chances are you have some in your house. It's an ore refined to make a coating for parts in computers, cell phones and such. In May, Radio Expeditions reported illegal coltan miners were endangering some of the world's great wildlife parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The region's wildlife suffered severely as miners killed elephants and gorillas for food. Conservationists demanded change; then it occurred for another reason.

The global demand and price for coltan fell.

As the world economy plummeted, so did the demand for coltan. Most of the thousands of miners in the parks are gone, and with them the immediate threat to wildlife. But conditions are hard for Africans in all parts of the Congo. Real hope for the people and their natural wonders, says John Hart of the Wildlife Conservation Society, depends on talks to end the civil war.

Original Show

May 2, 2001 -- Radio Expeditions investigates 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 cell-phones 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 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.

Listen as NPR's Alex Chadwick reports for Radio Expeditions on the threat facing Congo's gorillas

For more on coltan, go to The Paumanok Group Web site, to find out about reports available from this market research firm.

The full U.N. report is available from the United Nations Web site.

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