Dear EarthTalk: Has the recent violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo threatened the populations of lowland gorillas? How many are left?
—Glenn Hammond, San Francisco, CA
The short answer is yes, dramatically. Not to be confused with Western Lowland Gorillas, which are thriving in significant numbers in neighboring Congo (a recent census counted 125,000), today fewer than 5,000 Eastern Lowland Gorillas are estimated to remain in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), formerly known as Zaire. Some 17,000 inhabited the region as recently as 1994, but today habitat loss, hunting, and war and violence are combining to push them over the edge.
Following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, an influx of refugees, along with bloodthirsty militias, moved across the border into the neighboring DRC. These militias set up training grounds in the very forests the gorillas call home, making conservation work impractical to say the least. Park rangers, game wardens and wildlife researchers either fled their wooded beats or were removed at gunpoint.
In the wake of this, civilian populations in the affected areas still had to make ends meet somehow. So hunting for so-called "bushmeat," and cutting down the forest for firewood, charcoal and space for agricultural plots became the means for day-to-day survival, and continue to this day. Some 91 percent of the human population in the region practice subsistence agriculture. This means that large swaths of gorilla habitat throughout the region have been converted to farms. At the same time, 96 percent of the locals rely on firewood as their main supply of energy for warmth and cooking. "Forested parks are for many of them the last remaining source of fuel," reports the Year of the Gorilla website.
Because the violence has been so persistent and the research areas so vulnerable, scientists don't really know how badly Eastern Lowland Gorilla populations have been affected. The Year of the Gorilla Project, in conjunction with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and other groups, is working to reinstate regular monitoring and effective surveillance of the remaining Eastern Lowland Gorilla population throughout Kahuzi-Biega National Park, where armed factions have proliferated.
"The last reliable data on population size and distribution were recorded in 1995, and it is suspected that the population has shrunk dramatically since," reports the Year of the Gorilla website. "New, precise information will be one outcome of this project, enabling intelligent and effective approaches to the conservation of this rare species."
Biologists, environmentalists and wildlife fans the world over are certainly hoping for the best, and will no doubt continue to watch what happens as the fate of some of our closest relatives on the planet hangs in the balance.
Dear EarthTalk: I know of solar power systems that people can put on their roofs to generate electricity or heat water. Are there systems that serve whole neighborhoods?
—Lee Helscel, via email
Collective bargaining is a good strategy when looking to get the best price on a given product or service. Solar power is no exception, and dozens of neighborhood-wide installations in the U.S. and Canada have created a new model whereby going solar can actually start to pencil out for individual homeowners.
One of the first neighborhood-wide solar installations in the world was at the master-planned community of Drake Landing in the town of Okotoks in Alberta, Canada. The entire community, now with more than 50 homes built and occupied, is heated by a neighborhood-wide "borehole thermal energy" system designed to store abundant solar energy underground during the summer and distribute it to each home as needed for space heating throughout the winter. The system, which launched in June 2007, now fulfills some 90 percent of each home's space heating needs, with any slack taken up by fossil fuels.
While some planned communities like Drake Landing incorporated neighborhood solar power from the get-go, others decided it made sense after they were first built. One example is the deal that homeowners in Marin County, California can get in on, thanks to the hard work of the nonprofit GoSolarMarin. The group negotiated discounted group rates with several photovoltaic solar panel providers, and eventually signed on with SolarCity, a Silicon Valley based solar provider that operates some 30 different "community solar programs" across California, Arizona and Oregon.
GoSolarMarin was able to negotiate a rate some 25 percent lower than what a typical solar installation would cost for Marin County residents willing to participate. And best of all, homeowners can lease from SolarCity instead of having to pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket to buy equipment that may become obsolete in a few years. SolarCity monitors all clients" installations online to ensure that they are running at peak performance, and also makes house calls for maintenance as needed.
While California is no doubt a leader in residential solar power, the concept is spreading. Neighborhood Solar, for instance, is a Colorado-based nonprofit formed to accelerate the adoption of residential solar power in the Denver Metro area. The group organizes homeowners into collective solar purchasing groups, and negotiates significant discounts accordingly. "We act as an independent buyer's agent," the group reports on its website, "with the goal of providing the best value to residential solar purchasers while helping installers put up more solar at reduced overhead costs."
Community-based groups like GoSolarMarin and Neighborhood Solar are springing up all over the country, and dozens of solar companies have now adopted the community installation model. Community leaders interested in neighborhood-scope solar programs should shop around for the best prices and service guarantees before signing with any one solar provider. There's a lot individuals can do to be part of clean energy solutions; there's even more a group working in concert can accomplish, and community-based solar is but one bright and shining example.
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