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Recycle A Cell Phone, Save A Gorilla

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Saving an endangered African gorilla from violent extinction is as easy as driving to the Santa Barbara Zoo and dropping a cell phone in a box.

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In general, recycling is always a fine practice. But wouldn’t it be nice to know the concrete results of those good intentions?

The Santa Barbara Zoo, 500 Niños Drive, has a cell-phone recycling program that comes pretty close to this ideal.

Parked outside of the zoo’s entrance is a bin for used cell phones that looks about as unassuming as any recycling receptacle. But by dropping an old phone into the bin, you can make a tangible contribution to a dramatic quest to save an endangered African gorilla from violent extinction at the hands of poachers.

The western lowland gorillas already have benefited directly from Santa Barbara’s participation in the program, which started almost two years ago. During that time, Santa Barbarans have donated a small mountain’s worth of phones. Zoo officials don’t know the exact number, but they do know the weight: half a ton.

For reasons to be mentioned later, the 1,100 pounds of donated cell phones means that a prominent researcher studying the gorillas in their natural habitat — the Democratic Republic of Congo — will be able to hire two full-time eco-guards for a year. These guards will roam the area and stop by the villages to not only educate the residents about the ills of killing the endangered animals, but also to keep an eye out for scofflaws.

Here’s how the program works.

The mind-bending worldwide demand for cell phones has created an equally insatiable demand for coltan, a dull-black metallic ore used to make the gadgets.

Coltan is a rare resource found in precious few places — 80 percent of it is located in the Congo. The problem is the mineral exists smack in the middle of the area’s forests.

In addition to fueling a civil war that has killed millions, harvesting the material has resulted in the destruction of the land and gorillas. It involves cutting down swaths of forest to get to the hot spots, where miners dig for coltan.

Meanwhile, the disruption to the forest upsets the animals, some of which — such as the western lowland gorillas — are known to become hostile to humans. To guard against getting attacked, poachers kill the gorillas preemptively, and then sell the meat on the black market or eat it themselves.

“Cell phones are directly leading to illegal activities that are harming gorilla populations,” said Michele Green, an animal care specialist at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

In essence, donating the cell phones accomplishes two things: it reduces reliance on the mineral, and generates money for the cause.

Like the 87 other zoos across the nation participating in the program, the Santa Barbara Zoo has partnered with a nonprofit organization called Eco Cell. The company specializes in refurbishing old cell phones and re-selling them to various disadvantaged populations, such as countries just entering into the cell-phone market, battered women’s shelters and senior centers.

A portion of the proceeds go to the zoo, which donates all of the money to organizations and researchers dedicated to helping the gorillas. The presence of one particular researcher in the Congo has dramatically reduced the killings there.

In the meantime, the researcher is learning more and more about the gorilla, and sharing the results with the world at large.

“We’re learning about what gorillas are eating, how they are picking their mates — we’re learning about their diet, age and health from this researcher,” said Green. “But he’s also keeping poachers and miners out that area.”

The researcher has hired three eco-guards, but says he would like to hire five more, Green said.

Santa Barbara’s huge pile of cell phones so far has translated into a grand total of about $3,000. It may not sound like a lot of money, but in the Republic of Congo it bankrolls two well-paid eco-guards, bringing the researcher’s total number of guards to five.

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