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Mining is permanently damaging great ape populations in Africa

The impact of mining on Africa’s great ape populations has been greatly underestimated, according to a recent study led by the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU), and the non-profit organization Re:wild.

Increasing demand for critical minerals 

The experts identified the burgeoning threat posed by the increasing demand for critical minerals like copper, lithium, nickel, cobalt, and rare earth elements, essential for the transition to cleaner energy. 

This demand drives a mining surge in Africa, where many of these resources remain untapped, leading to deforestation and endangering the habitats of our closest living relatives, including gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees. 

The researchers estimate that mining places nearly 180,000 great apes at risk, more than one-third of Africa’s entire population of these species.

Concealment of biodiversity data by mining companies

The concealment of biodiversity data by mining companies exacerbates the situation, hiding the full extent of mining’s impact on biodiversity and great apes. 

The research team utilized data on operational and prospective mining sites across 17 African countries, incorporating buffer zones around these sites to measure both direct impacts, like habitat destruction and pollution, and indirect ones, such as increased human activity leading to habitat loss and elevated disease transmission risks.

Overlaps in mining and high ape density zones 

Great apes in West Africa, particularly in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali, and Guinea, face the severest threats due to substantial overlaps between mining areas and high ape density zones. 

Notably, in Guinea, mining activities could impact over 23,000 chimpanzees, up to 83% of the country’s ape population. The areas most at risk – where high ape and mining densities coincide – are largely unprotected.

Mining’s true impact on great apes

“Currently, studies on other species suggest that mining harms apes through pollution, habitat loss, increased hunting pressure, and disease, but this is an incomplete picture,” said study lead author Jessica Junker, a researcher at Re:wild and former postdoctoral fellow at iDiv and MLU. 

“The lack of data sharing by mining projects hampers our scientific understanding of its true impact on great apes and their habitat.”

Regions designated as critical habitats 

The intersection of mining areas with regions designated as “critical habitats,” essential for their unique biodiversity, was found to be alarmingly high, about 20 percent. 

Critical habitats are subject to stringent environmental regulations, especially for mining projects seeking financial backing from entities like the International Finance Corporation or similar lenders. However, many ape habitats have been overlooked in previous mappings of critical habitat in Africa. 

More transparency is urgently needed

“Companies operating in these areas should have adequate mitigation and compensation schemes in place to minimize their impact, which seems unlikely, given that most companies lack robust species baseline data that are required to inform these actions,” explained senior author Tenekwetche Sop, the  manager of the IUCN SSC A.P.E.S. Database at the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History, a repository of all great ape population data. 

“Encouraging these companies to share their invaluable ape survey data with our database serves as a pivotal step towards transparency in their operations. Only through such collaborative efforts can we comprehensively gauge the true extent of mining activities’ effects on great apes and their habitats.”

Permanent damage inflicted on great ape populations

The study also critiques the current practices of compensation or offsetting by mining companies, pointing out that these measures are often based on underestimated approximations of mining’s impacts and fail to account for the permanent damage inflicted on great ape populations

”Mining companies need to focus on avoiding their impacts on great apes as much as possible and use offsetting as a last resort as there is currently no example of a great ape offset that has been successful,” said co-author Genevieve Campbell, the leader of the IUCN SSC PSG SGA/SSA ARRC Task Force and a senior researcher at Re:wild. 

Exploration and habitat destruction 

“Avoidance needs to take place already during the exploration phase, but unfortunately, this phase is poorly regulated and ‘baseline data’ are collected by companies after many years of exploration and habitat destruction have taken place. These data then do not accurately reflect the original state of the great ape populations in the area before mining impacts.’’

“A shift away from fossil fuels is good for the climate but must be done in a way that does not jeopardize biodiversity. In its current iteration it may even be going against the very environmental goals we’re aiming for. Companies, lenders and nations need to recognize that it may sometimes be of greater value to leave some regions untouched to mitigate climate change and help prevent future epidemics,” Junker concluded.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.


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