Great apes threatened by mining for electric vehicle batteries


The noise pollution, habitat loss and disease spillover that can come with mining could threaten chimpanzee populations in some countries in Africa

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More than a third of the great apes living in Africa are under threat from the booming demand for minerals that are critical to the creation of green energy technologies, such as electric vehicles.

Africa is home to around one sixth of the world’s remaining forests, with the habitat found in countries such as Ghana, Gabon and Uganda. The continent also houses four great ape species: chimpanzees, bonobos and two species of gorilla.

But many of these great apes live in regions eyed by mining firms as potential sites to extract commodities. For instance, more than 50 per cent of the world’s reserves of cobalt and manganese are found in Africa, and 22 per cent of its graphite.

To assess the scale of the threat to great ape populations, Jessica Junker at the non-profit conservation group Re:wild in Austin, Texas, and her colleagues overlaid the location of operational and planned mining sites across 17 African countries with available data on the density and distribution of ape populations.  

The team drew a 50 kilometre “buffer zone” around mining sites, to account both for their direct impacts on ape populations, such as noise pollution, habitat loss and disease spillover, as well as indirect disturbances, such as the construction of new service roads and infrastructure. 

In total, 180,000 great apes – just over one-third of the entire continental population – could be threatened by mining activities, the researchers found. 

The West African countries Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali and Guinea saw the largest overlap between ape populations and mining sites. In Guinea, 83 per cent of the ape population could be affected by mining, the study finds.  

The team only considered industrial mining projects, says Junker. The threat could be even larger once the impact of artisanal mines, where miners usually work in rudimentary and often hazardous conditions, is considered. 

Cobalt, manganese and graphite are all used in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, which power electric vehicles. Other materials found in these countries, including bauxite, platinum, copper, graphite and lithium, are used to power green technologies, such as hydrogen, wind turbines and solar panels.

Junker says companies should stop mining in areas important for apes and instead focus on recycling these critical materials from waste. “There’s huge potential in reusing metals,” she says. “We simply need to consume more sustainably. Then it will be possible to leave at least some of the areas intact that are very important for great apes.”  

She also calls for mining companies to make public biodiversity assessments of potential mining sites. “Greater transparency is the first step.” 

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