The Global Mining Boom Puts African Great Apes at Greater Risk Than Previously Known

Africa’s great apes—from gorillas to chimpanzees and bonobos—are under far greater threat than scientists previously realized, a new study suggests. 

While primatologists and conservationists have long tracked great ape populations and the human activities that negatively impact them—from poaching to expanding agriculture and oil drilling—there has historically been a dearth of information on the location of industrial mining operations throughout the African continent and their relationship to great apes’ habitats. 

That is, until now. 

The report, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, includes a novel analysis that compares previously unavailable data on the location of industrial mining sites with great ape population locations and densities across 17 African countries. 

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The findings are stark: One-third of Africa’s great apes, about 180,000 individuals, could be negatively affected by industrial mining across the continent. 

Previous studies had estimated that only 2 to 13 percent of all primate species were threatened collectively by roadways, railways, oil and gas drilling and mining.

“We were surprised by our findings and did not expect that the magnitude and scale of individuals affected would be this large,” said report co-author Jessica Junker. 

According to the researchers’ analysis, West African countries have the largest amount of overlap, with about 80 percent of the region’s great apes living within 30 miles of mining sites. Central Africa, which has a greater density of great apes, had the highest number potentially impacted by mining—more than 135,000 individuals.

The analysis did not include small-scale and illegal mining operations. 

Studies have shown that mining-related deforestation can extend over 40 miles from the boundaries of mining concessions. While few studies have focused on mining operations’ impacts on great apes specifically, scientists have documented that mining can negatively impact other species, including primates, from the very beginning of the exploration phase, when vegetation is cleared, heavy machinery is brought in, and drilling and blasting takes place. Those activities have been found to increase some species’ heart rates, damage their auditory systems and affect their ability to communicate. 

During the extraction process, habitats are degraded, fragmented and destroyed, while chemicals and heavy metals are released into air, water and soil. 

Wednesday’s report comes as wealthy, industrialized countries are investing heavily in low-carbon technologies, like windmills, solar panels and lithium-ion batteries, that require large amounts of mined metals and minerals. From 2020 to 2023, governments have poured about $1.34 trillion into clean energy investment, according to the International Energy Association.

Africa is home to 30 percent of the world’s known mineral resources and many governments see mining as a means to economic growth and development. At the same time, parts of the continent are being disproportionately impacted by climate change, from droughts to flooding and desertification, despite most African countries’ low historic and per capita emissions. Africa’s tropical forests store large amounts of planet-warming carbon and are home to most of the continent’s great apes.

“Current climate solutions could lead to more industrialization in these places, which could worsen the climate crisis,” the report said. 

The authors of the new study said their work revealed just how little information mining companies release publicly about the impact their operations have on great apes. 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a leading global nonprofit nature conservation organization, maintains an authoritative database of great ape information, but about 1 percent of the information in that database came from mining areas. That lack of information sharing is a big problem, affecting scientists’ ability to quantify mining impacts on apes and, ultimately, the development of effective policies to mitigate harm, the report said. 

Another problem the authors identified is that most mining companies are under-assessing their impacts, and only account for the direct environmental harm they can cause within the strict bounds of their mining concessions, and only after extraction operations have begun. 

Indirect effects of the mining process include fatal vehicle collisions with apes on mining roads and railways, zoonotic and infectious disease spread from increased contacts with humans and the increased likelihood of landslides and fires from land use change. 

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Efforts to mitigate these adverse impacts have little data to support their efficacy or have serious limitations, the report said. For example, efforts to rehabilitate degraded habitats can take years if not decades, and apes cannot wait that long. Relocating them is also a poor option because of their complex social dynamics, high mortality risks and limited amounts of alternative habitats available. Instead, efforts should be concentrated on preventing the harm in the first place by avoiding mining in great apes’ habitats, said Junker, who is also a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group

“We especially urge lending banks to put an eye on this issue and reevaluate their investments in areas of importance to great apes,” she said. 

While there are over 500 known species of primates, there are only 14 species and subspecies of great apes including the bonobo and subspecies of gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans.

The main features that distinguishes great apes from other primates is their lack of external tails and their superior levels of intelligence—they can learn spoken and sign languages; use tools; exhibit self-control; comprehend the past, present and future; recognize themselves in a mirror; and have complex social relationships, among other indicators of sentience and consciousness. 

The IUCN lists all great ape species as endangered or critically endangered.

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