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Wildlife: Cellular Death

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Sure, cell phones are annoying and inescapable -- and useful, and nifty. But before you buy that teensy new toy, ask yourself this question: Is your need for the latest technology really worth the slaughter of a gorilla?

Because, according to Bronx Zoo-affiliated wildlife researchers based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and to a United Nations panel established to investigate the plunder of natural resources there, it turns out the hidden cost of cell phones is not just a potential rise in brain tumors. It's also the wholesale poaching of elephants, okapis, and gorillas.

All this because of increased demand for a mineral ore called Columbite-tantalite, known as coltan, which is refined into a heat-resistant material used in gadgets, from Palms to VCRs. But it's the cell-phone boom (more than 500 million are expected to be sold this year) that's really upped coltan demand, sending the price per pound shooting up from $20 in 1990 to more than $350 in 2001.

Most of the world's coltan comes from Australia, but Congo is also rich in the mineral, which is being mined in several "World Heritage Sites" designated as vital nature preserves. Miners camped out in the parks have been slaughtering animals for food. The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that thousands of elephants and gorillas have been slaughtered in one preserve, the Kahuzi-Biega National Park, and the U.N. report claims that only 2 out of 350 elephant families remain. "Even now, elephants are not easy to find there," says Omari Illambu, a WCS conservation biologist, who travels back and forth between the Bronx and Congo.

Miners pass the ore along to high-ranking military officials who control the market for the mineral in the war-ravaged country. According to Illambu, the miners themselves seldom receive money for their work, but rather barter the coltan for the guns, ammunition, and wire (for traps) they need to hunt for food.

Manufacturers have denounced the conditions in Congo. "The wireless manufacturers have begun demanding assurances from their suppliers certifying that the coltan being used to develop cell phones and PDAs is not being mined illegally," says Jay Kitchen, president of the Personal Communications Industry Association. But the complex and murky supply chain often makes it all but impossible to know for sure.

Even though there's been a flattening out of tech-product sales, the amount of coltan being mined in some of Congo's national parks isn't slowing down. "Even if the price drops," says Illambu. "It's hard for the miners to realize that there's no more market."


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