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Coltan, Prince of Darkness

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Updated Movie star Leonardo di Caprio is to be the face of a new campaign for "gorilla-friendly" mobile phones. What the hell does that mean? Phones with larger buttons for gorillas to use? Nope, it's all to do with coltan.

Coltan is a black mineral. It is a contraction of colombo tantalite and just happens to be an excellent conductor while able to deal with extremes of temperature. The military love it. And so do mobile phone manufacturers and games console builders, who use it to coat electronic components.

So what? Well, 80 per cent of the world's coltan is found in Africa and 80 per cent of that (64 per cent) is found in Congo. Congo however isn't the most stable of regions and that fact that coltan can now fetch up to £200 a pound has made its mining a popular activity among warring factions. When you mix men with guns and minerals worth a small fortune, inevitably smuggling, violence and general disorder result.

Gorilla Killa Thrilla

What's this got to do with our Leo and gorillas? Well, in that wonderful way that we in the developed world only care about something if it happens within a few miles of our house or if some cute animal is killed, it would appear that the mining activities in Congo have caused some cute animals to be killed.

Not that gorillas are cute in any sense of the word, but they have been the result of numerous films and TV programmes, so we like to get upset about them. Elephants and chimpanzees are also be slaughtered for miners' food but then has there ever been an Elephants in the Mist?

The eastern lowland gorillas are being edged toward extinction due to mining in national parks in the area and so a campaign to encourage people to buy coltan-free mobiles have been launched by the Dian Fossey Fund. Dian Fossey was an American environmentalist campaigned for the protection of gorillas.

The fund has a number of celebrity backers and our Leo is one of its patrons. Douglas Adams was also a fan, as is Arthur C Clarke. And of course Sigourney Weaver.

There are precious few details about the campaign as yet, nor do we know of any way in which you know if a mobile phone uses coltan or not. The phone companies of course deny that they use any coltan that comes from Congo but it is definitely being sold to someone. We'll have to wait and see if the campaign picks up. As yet, there isn't anything about it on the official Fund site.

Update

Apparently there's to be a Channel 4 programme on coltan mining this Friday at 7.30pm, called Unreported World. Also, another reader has been in touch to explain that coltan mining is also very dangerous for the miners and not just the fluffy animals. Apparently it is often found near uranium and as such many miners are contaminating themselves - with the knock-on effect of babies being born with defects. ®

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