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Guerrilla Marketing to Save Mountain Gorillas: Renewable Energy to the Rescue

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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gorilla marketing virunga national parkHow does dressing up in a really bad gorilla costume help to save endangered mountain gorillas? Well, it’s not actually the costume itself that’s important; it’s what the man inside the costume is also carrying.

Take a look at the photo to the left. In one hand, the costumed gorilla holds an energy-efficient stove. In the other, he carries a bag of biomass briquettes. Put together (without the gorilla suit of course), these two items could provide safe, inexpensive, environmentally friendly fuel for heating and cooking to the 250,000 refugees currently crowding around Virunga National Park as they flee violence from the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Even before the conflict, which flared up about five months ago, the area around Virunga was home to millions of people, only a tiny percentage of whom had access to electricity. The main sources of energy in the region are wood and charcoal, both of which tend to come from the park itself. Demand for charcoal—made by illegally burning trees—was already so high before the refugees came to the region that park rangers and critically endangered mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) were frequently slain if they got in the way. A few years ago Virunga called charcoal “the single biggest threat to the mountain gorillas and other flora and fauna in the park.” About half of the world’s 720 mountain gorillas live in Virunga.

In 2009 the Africa Conservation Fund proposed a solution: tiny, energy-efficient stoves that would burn biomass briquettes made from sawdust, rice husks, coffee and tea residues, sorghum, leaves and grass—all renewable resources. In addition to not being made from park trees, a 50-kilogram sack of fuel briquettes costs just $12, compared with $25 for the same amount of charcoal, which is a significant savings for cash-strapped residents. Meanwhile, creating them creates employment opportunities in a region where few others exist.

Unfortunately, convincing people to break tradition and use the biomass briquettes has been an uphill challenge. (You can read my previous reports on this here and here.) Over the past three years the team behind the program has refined their process, improved their packaging and added another alternative fuel source—reclaimed charcoal called chardust fireballs—but significant progress is still required.

Despite the hurdles, the rangers at Virunga have not given up trying to attract new converts to the biomass briquette stoves. Last week Balemba Balagizi, who manages the briquette program, donned the gorilla costume and took to the streets of one refugee community to extol the benefits of biomass and to put a semi-human face on the victims of the charcoal trade. Chief Warden Emmanuel de Merode wrote on the official Virunga blog last week that it’s too early to know if the gorilla guerrilla marketing approach will work, but “it did bring a few smiles to otherwise terribly stressed families.”

Guerrilla marketing is a great way to get a message out there, and I hope that this bit of whimsy in the middle of an awful situation does at least a little bit of good. Unfortunately, the region is saturated by real guerillas and at least nine militia groups that kill people and animals every day. The situation in the Congo is undoubtedly going to get worse before it gets better, but if refugees can save a few dollars when buying cooking fuel and protect wildlife in the process, the park may have a brighter future ahead.

Photo: Virunga National Park

John R. Platt About the Author: Twice a week, John Platt shines a light on endangered species from all over the globe, exploring not just why they are dying out but also what's being done to rescue them from oblivion. Follow on Twitter @johnrplatt.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ECOLIFE 2:16 pm 09/25/2012

    The work with briquettes is important and commendable . . . but they need a different stove. 2,000,000 people – mostly women and children die every year from these indoor cooking fires. Invisible smoke is not safe. Unless the communities are nomadic a permanent stove or charcoal grill WITH a chimney is critical – their improved health and safety is a bigger motivator than saving forests or gorillas…and the positive results are the same.

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  2. 2. Cees Timmerman 8:24 am 09/26/2012

    I thought the greatest threats were logging and bushmeat commerce. So BBQs are the real reason?

    Biomass is great, but isn’t there enough sun for a solar cooker?

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  3. 3. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:31 am 09/26/2012

    I know you’re trying to be funny, Cees, but logging = fuel for people with no other source of energy. The trees are cut down and burned to create charcoal. Bushmeat isn’t as much of a threat directly to mountain gorillas — they’re too isolated — but it is for other gorilla species and other primates. Solar coolers are an excellent idea, I’m not sure how much they have been explored there.

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  4. 4. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 8:44 am 09/26/2012

    Ecolife, I just did some reading on the dangers of indoor stoves. I don’t think these are recommended for indoor use, but it’s an incredibly valid point. Thanks.

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  5. 5. AfricanJones 9:10 am 09/27/2012

    Solar cookers work well but you need full sunlight for several hours per day. This is not always possible in the tropics and higher elevations with orographic precipitation and cloud cover. There are a number of stove types available that vastly improve air quality and are much more efficient for indoor use (google search “rocket stoves”). The problem, as usual, is funding to make them available and training to overcome cultural/historical reluctance that is common to all societies. These are great ideas but they need continuous dedicated resources over large areas to really make a significant difference. It is worth the effort!

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  6. 6. John R. Platt in reply to John R. Platt 11:27 am 09/27/2012

    Thanks for the comment, AfricanJones!

    Another advantage of biomass, by the way, is the opportunity for employment, which is in critical need there. I don’t know if I see that coming from solar stoves or rocket stoves.

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  7. 7. ChristopherChase 11:49 pm 11/12/2012

    Hello All,
    I am a student at Temple University. For one of my classes this semester we had the opportunity to pick any nonprofit organization we wanted to. My group decided to work with the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. One of the main focuses with the Dian Fossey Fund is allowing gorillas and people to coexist in their natural environment. Humans are the largest risk to gorillas. They are the current reason they are endangered and most likely the reason they will become exist within the next 2 decades. However, efforts can be made to stop this. It is not like a plague is ending the gorilla’s existence, there is something each and every one of us can do to allow gorillas to live.
    This article was a perfect example of that. Why destroy the gorilla’s habitat, when there are other sources that are just as efficient such as the energy efficient stove and the biomass briquettes?
    Another interesting funny similarity between the article and our group’s efforts is that when we collect money we also dress up in gorilla suits. It is an amazing way to attract attention. We have found that it is more difficult to collect money for gorillas as we thought it would be so we insist on at least spreading awareness as much as we can. Gorillas can be saved! First of all, I do not think people are aware of the horrible condition humans are leaving them in from forms of poaching and destruction of habitat. Secondly, I do not think people are aware how it can be stopped. Simple things such as a energy efficient stove need to be brought to the attention of others. Our group will be happy to share your article on our Facebook page and our twitter page. We hope to continue to raise awareness. Links to both and also our donation page will be added below. Please follow, like, and share. Thank You.

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