Your mobile phone is killing gorillas

3 September 2015 General News

The Guardian | 3rd September 2015

Vet turned bestselling children’s author Gill Lewis reveals how our mobile phones connect all of us to the fate of the gorilla - and how the discovery inspired her novel, Gorilla Dawn

Finding a voice to tell a story is probably the hardest part of writing a novel. The ideas are there, the vague outline of a plot is forming, but until that voice emerges and demands their story to be told, the research and information gathered become disconnected facts. The character must become the glue to bind them all together.

The first spark that ignited the idea for Gorilla Dawn was from an article that declared in big bold letters, your mobile phone is killing gorillas. It stopped me in my tracks. What had my phone got to do with these iconic beasts brought to our books and screens by the legendary Dian Fossey and David Attenborough?

I read on to discover that our mobile phones connect all of us to the fate of the gorilla. The manufacture of nearly every electronic device we use requires the minerals; tantalum, tungsten, tin and gold. Many of these minerals are sourced in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the forest home of the eastern lowland gorilla. Armed groups control many of the mines, terrorising communities and destroying livelihoods. Mining activities decimate gorilla populations through habitat loss, poaching for bushmeat and spread of disease such as Ebola. The armed groups are funded directly and indirectly through multinational electronics companies intent on sourcing minerals for their products. Five million Congolese have died as a result of the violence since the 90s, and research estimates that the eastern lowland gorilla could become virtually extinct in the wild by 2050. Knowing that my mobile phone could be responsible for human and animal suffering didn’t sit comfortably with me.

I wanted to know more about the gorillas and the people who looked after them. I wanted to find out how mining affected people’s lives. As I delved deeper, I felt the tingle of anticipation a writer feels when the first strands of a story come together. My research led me to the brave men and women wildlife rangers who risk their lives on a daily basis protecting the gorillas and the national parks. But protecting the gorillas alone is not enough. Gorillas live in forest habitats surrounded by some of the highest human population densities on earth, and so if the gorillas are to survive, local communities must be ensured their livelihoods are protected too. People like John Kahekwe, founder of the Pole Pole Foundation give their life’s work to ensure those people who live around the Kahuzi Beiga National Park benefit from it, and are involved with its protection. The Virunga National Park has seen the numbers of mountain gorillas rise in recent years as a result of such conservation strategies. International cooperation between conservation groups and the sharing of information and expertise helps to increase understanding of the natural world and our connection with it. Primatologists Jane Goodall and Ian Redmond educate and inspire people across the world, bringing to light the plight of magnificent primates and the habitats in which they live. 

Safeguarding the future of the forests is not just important for the gorillas and the communities who live alongside them. It is vital for us all. The rainforests regulate our climate, drive our weather patterns and sequester carbon. They are not part of a benign paradise. They are essential to all life on earth.

But where it is hard to secure peace for people, it is impossible to secure the future of wild places. The instability in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo is perpetuated by the demand for minerals. Bandi Mbubi, inspirational speaker and founder of Congo Calling, campaigns for fair trade conflict-free minerals. Technology has caused the problem, but technology also offers an answer. It gives us all a voice. We are used to demanding fair-trade coffee and dolphin-friendly tuna. Well now it’s time to use consumer power to demand conflict-free minerals. It’s time to petition MPs to push governments to pass laws to ensure fair trade. People like Bandi Mbubi are striving to find a peaceful way forward in a turbulent world. 

But it was through listening to, and reading the testimonials of former child soldiers where I found my story; from children who have survived the horrors of war and who struggle to reintegrate into society and find a future. These children helped Imara, the central character in my story, to find her voice. 

Finding your own voice can the hardest part of standing up for something you strongly believe in. The people who inspired me while researching Gorilla Dawn are the same people who protect and care about the gorillas, the forests and the communities who live alongside them. In doing so, they have helped me and many others find a voice of our own too. 

Gill Lewis’s Gorilla Dawn is published in paperback by Oxford University Press. Buy Gorilla Dawn at the Guardian bookshop.


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