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Study: A third of Africa’s great apes at risk from mining of transition metals

  • Rising demand for the metals needed to power the global renewable energy transition potentially threatens more than a third of Africa’s great apes.
  • Nearly 180,000 gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos face potential fallout from current and future mining projects for these transition metals, particularly in West Africa.
  • Direct and indirect potential impacts from mining on apes include habitat destruction, health threats from light pollution and disease transmission, and safety risks from vehicle traffic.
  • Transparent data sharing and a more robust mechanism to mitigate impacts before they materialize could go a long way to protect Africa’s great apes from becoming a casualty of climate action.

Scientists have warned that mining of the metals needed for the global clean energy transition could threaten Africa’s already beleaguered great apes unless strong conservation measures are implemented.

Nearly 180,000 gorillas, chimpanzees and bonobos — more than a third of the entire great ape population in Africa — could be directly or indirectly threatened by mining now and in the near future, according to a recent study in the journal Science Advances.

“The minerals used to help us reduce climate change come from areas covered with habitat that could be important to great apes,” study lead author Jessica Junker, a researcher at wildlife conservation NGO Re:wild and former postdoctoral researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), told Mongabay in a video interview. “Taking these minerals out of the Earth can have quite a severe impact and cause these habitats to disappear.”

Junker and an international team from Germany, Australia and several African countries looked at the current and future potential effects of mining on great apes in Africa, choosing this group of species to illustrate the implications of mining operations in Africa and worldwide.

A baby gorilla takes a ride on their mothers back. nearly 18000 of these apes risk fallout from mining projects. Image courtesy Jeremy Stewardson via Unsplash

‘The threat is larger than we thought’

While Africa is home to 30% of the world’s mineral resources — including 19% of reserves of so-called critical metals like bauxite, cobalt and aluminum — the continent currently accounts for less than 5% of global mining activity, researchers say.

A boom in African mining activity is anticipated as the clean energy transition takes hold around the world, and could significantly impact an area that includes one-sixth of the world’s remaining forests, some of which are home to threatened ape populations.

“The threat is larger than we thought,” Junker said. “It’s worrying.”

For the study, Junker and the team projected the potential direct and indirect impacts on apes within 10 and 50 kilometers (6 and 30 miles) respectively of mine sites in 17 African countries. These included both exploration sites and extraction sites. The impacts they studied included communication disruption from industrial noise, physiological symptoms from light pollution, increased exposure to vehicle collisions, and increased transmission of diseases to and from humans.

Junker said the overlap between mining exploration and preparation areas and important ape habitats was particularly high in West Africa, especially Guinea.

“Up to 80% of the entire ape population in Guinea could be threatened. That includes about 23,000 chimpanzees,” Junker said.

Rules to mitigate impact

Mining of transition metals poses a tricky balancing act between biodiversity conservation and climate action, both of which are urgent issues.

“A rapid increase in demand for metals for renewable energy … could lead to mining of marginal or unconventional resources, which are often in more remote or biodiverse places,” Elsa Dominish, a senior research consultant at the Australia-based Institute for Sustainable Futures, told Mongabay in 2019.

The study authors have called on those responsible for funding, approving or managing mining projects to minimize the impacts of their activities on great apes in Africa.

The International Finance Corporation, the private sector funding arm of the World Bank, specifically cites great apes in its funding rules. The multilateral agency finances mining projects across Africa and the world, but designates as “critical habitat” mining areas that are home to great apes, and imposes strict regulations on mining companies in these areas seeking funding.

Lack of transparent data sharing hampers science-based quantification of impacts of mining on apes and their habitat. Image courtesy Anna Dulisse.

These companies are expected to follow a “mitigation hierarchy” set out by the Business and Biodiversity Offsets Program: avoid, minimize, restore and offset.

In theory, if a mining company were to follow this hierarchy, it would first adequately identify risks and seek to avoid harming habitat and wildlife. If it can’t prevent harmful impacts and has been allowed to continue its operation, fair compensation in the form of payments, training, capacity building, or research and rehabilitation and restoration measures must be provided.

But Junker and her team say this mitigation hierarchy has problems.

“Mining companies frequently only apply measures to mitigate direct impact during exploitation and within the mining lease boundaries. They fail to consider that their impacts, whether direct or indirect, occur during all project development stages and spill over to a wider geographic area,” the study says. “To allow ape populations to disperse and relocate, mitigation of both direct and indirect impact should extend beyond the administrative boundaries of the mining project.”

Study co-author Geneviève Campbell, also from Re:wild, said she hopes the findings will encourage mining operations and those who fund them to do more to protect threatened apes as early as possible.

“Mining companies need to focus on avoiding their impacts on great apes as much as possible,” Campbell said in a press release. “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.”

Mining companies frequently only apply measures to mitigate direct impact during exploitation and within the mining lease boundaries. They fail to consider that their impacts, whether direct or indirect, occur during all project development stages and spill over to a wider geographic area. Image by Mike Arney via Unsplash.

Poor data sharing hampers effective conservation

Since 2004, the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, has maintained a global census and density information database on apes, known as the Ape Populations, Environments, and Surveys database, or A.P.E.S.

This public repository of all existing data on ape population surveys aims to determine the number and exact location of apes in African and Asia, aiding research and conservation strategies.

“We have gathered a lot of information over the past 15 years,” Junker said. “And now we are moving towards using this information to evaluate conservation effectiveness challenges across these sites and how to better or more effectively protect these apes.”

For African great apes in areas open to mining, however, long-standing data embargoes make collecting the data needed for effective conservation and mitigation strategies challenging.

Junker and her team’s results confirmed a need for mining projects to share more data. Only 1% of the ape survey data from Africa currently stored in the A.P.E.S. database come from locations in and around active or preoperational mining sites.

“This lack of transparent data sharing hampers science-based quantification of impacts of mining on apes and their habitat,” the study says. “We therefore stress the need for mining companies to make their biodiversity data publicly available in a central database, such as A.P.E.S.”

Impact of the clean energy transition

If companies continue to do business as usual, then the rapidly growing demand for transition metals will put Africa’s great apes at greater risk than they already are, Junker said.

“The green energy transition needs these minerals, but it’s important that people don’t get misled by the ‘green,'” she said. “If you want to transition, you are going to cause an impact somewhere else.”

This makes it even more important to mitigate any impacts before mining activity starts.

“The potential threat of mining to great apes is bigger than previously anticipated,” Junker said. “But most mining locations included in this analysis are preoperational sites that may or may not become operational. That’s why I always emphasize it’s a potential threat. We can change the path.”

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Banner Image: A Ugandan Chimpanzee in a diminishing habitat. Image courtesy of Anna Dulisse.
Junker, J., Quoss, L., Valdez, J., Arandjelovic, M., Barrie, A., Campbell, G., … Sop, T. (2024). Threat of mining to African great apes. Science Advances, 10(14), eadl0335. doi:10.1126/sciadv.adl0335

Edwards, D. P., Sloan, S., Weng, L., Dirks, P., Sayer, J., & Laurance, W. F. (2014). Mining and the African environment. Conservation Letters, 7(3), 302-311. doi:10.1111/conl.12076

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