The Democratic Republic of Congo (the DRC) is one of just a handful of locations where gorillas still roam freely in the wild. In fact, the Grauer’s gorilla subspecies, or eastern lowland gorilla, is only found in the eastern DRC. According to the WWF, Gorillas share 98.3% of their DNA with humans, making them our closest cousins after bonobos and chimpanzees, with shocking intellectual and emotional similarities to humans. But gorillas have been decreasing in number for decades. A 2010 UN report suggested that gorillas will likely disappear entirely from large parts of the Congo Basin by the mid-2020s.
The main causes of the gorillas’ endangerment, especially in the DRC, are a combination of human factors. In the DRC, mining and logging companies clear the land inhabited by gorillas for their commercial exploits, and locals cut down trees as well for agriculture and livestock. As only 17% of the gorilla population lives in protected regions, gorillas are left largely at the mercy of such habitat loss and pushed into ever smaller enclaves, an unnatural state for largely territorial animals. Gorillas also suffer from the bushmeat trade in the Congo, particularly from miners, and from the exportation of juveniles for the exotic pet trade and into zoos.
Gorillas are protected in national Congolese law under Decree 3863 of 18 May 1984. Under this decree, protections of certain animals (including gorillas) and conditions for conservation and exploitation of wildlife are defined. In Act 37-2008 of 28 November 2008 on Wildlife and Protected Areas, Article 27 states that import, export, possession, and transit on national territory of strictly protected species and their trophies are strictly prohibited unless special permission from the administration of water and forests, for needs of scientific research or breeding purposes, is obtained. There are also anti-corruption laws found in Act 5-2009 Law on Corruption Articles 12 and 17, preventing bribery and corruption in illegal wildlife poaching and trafficking.
Gorillas are also protected under international legislation, such as the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species, the Convention on Migratory Species, and the United Nations Convention against Corruption. Under the Constitution of the DRC, a regularly ratified or approved treaty or agreement has a superior authority over national laws, provided that, for each treaty or agreement, it is reciprocally applied by the other Party.
Despite all of this legislation to protect gorillas in the DRC, enforcement is severely lacking, and the people have grown accustomed to it. The result is that the laws are routinely ignored and systematically undermined. Also, judicial enforcement of punishment is slight enough to not act as a true deterrent. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) suggests that this has resulted in Grauer’s Gorilla numbers falling 77% in the last two decades, with fewer than 4,000 now remaining, as the causes of gorilla decimation are allowed to continue under the negligent eyes of Congolese law.
Despite a bleak prognosis, organisations are trying to galvanise the role of the law to save the DRC gorillas. With the help of the Aspinall Foundation and Port Lympne Reserve, the Project for the Application of the Law for Fauna (‘PALF’) was established in 2008 in the DRC to “enforce wildlife laws, provide deterrents to killing wildlife and monitor illegal wildlife trade along with other detrimental activities”. The mission of PALF, therefore, is to ensure that deterring prison sentences are handed down to wildlife criminals and for closer follow-up of judicial procedures, from the investigations and operations to trials and all the way to the sentencing and application of penalties. PALF have succeeded in gaining the attention of local Congolese press and the successful prosecution of a handful of wildlife traffickers and poachers. However, they note “there is still a long way to go in the court system. Many sentences being handed down are suspended sentences, but we are fighting for even stricter application of the law.”
Gorilla species are declining at alarming rates due a combination of deadly human factors. Despite laws being in place, from national and international bodies, designed to protect gorillas and to prevent the loss of their species, the lack of enforcement of these laws and punishments has rendered them largely ineffective. Only with the help of organisations like PALF, pushing for a more active role of the law and stronger legal enforcement, will the gorillas stand a chance of survival. It would be devastating to lose gorillas, one of humankind’s closest cousins, simply because our laws failed to protect them.