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Understanding The Congo's Gorillas

Understanding The Congo's GorillasFor more than a decade, a Tufts expert has studied the Congo’s gorilla population, documenting critical information about the dwindling animals. No. Grafton, Mass.

No. Grafton, Mass. [04.07.03] Mining, logging and poaching - all have had a devastating effect on the gorilla population of the Congo basin. As their numbers decline, scientists are uncovering critical information about the animals and their habitats. After spending more than 10 years studying gorillas in Africa, research by Tufts' Dr. Michele Goldsmith is challenging some of the assumptions scientists have made about gorillas for years.

"For a long time, we thought gorillas were gorillas," Goldsmith - a professor at Tufts School of Veterinary Medicine said in a Worcester Telegram and Gazette report. "Now we know that there are different kinds of gorillas. They're not all the same."

Citing important distinctions between mountain gorillas - which have been studied with the most frequency - and lowland gorillas, Goldsmith says the animals should be separated into different species.

"If certain birds have a different-colored feather, they get classified as a different species," Goldsmith said in the Telegram and Gazette article. "But with gorillas, there's always been something about lumping them together."

Historically, gorillas have been poorly characterized by myths and false stereotypes.

"The fascination with gorillas began in the early 1900s, based on early, exaggerated stories told by the ‘great white hunters' coming back from Africa, conjuring up images of ferocious, man-eating beasts," the Tufts professor said. It took more than 60 years for researchers to prove the animals were primarily vegetarians and generally gentle.

While exposure to the gorillas in their natural habitats has helped educate the public, the increased human contact with the animals has a cost.

"Goldsmith said that losing a fear of humans makes gorillas more susceptible to poachers and loss of habitat causes them to venture out of protected park areas into local farmland," reported the Telegram and Gazette. "This affects their health, their diet, and social patterns."

The animals' habitats are also under increased pressure from loggers and poachers. Even the booming technology industry is threatening the gorilla populations, Goldsmith said, citing the impact of mining operations for critical materials used in the manufacturing of electronics.

"Coltan, a source of the element tantalum - an essential coating for components of many modern electronic devices, especially cell phones and computers - is mined in the Congo, among other places, and miners who illegally set up camp often slaughter local gorillas for food," reported the newspaper. "Wildlife officials have estimated that the coltan trade has led to the death of 7,000 lowland gorillas in the past two years."


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