The animals are being poached for bushmeat by militia groups and miners digging for an ore called coltan.

It contains tantalum, used to make capacitors in modern electronic devices.

Much of the globe’s coltan is mined here in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Wildlife observers have witnessed whole families of gorillas being massacred by thugs with machine guns.

Eastern lowland gorillas, which are only found in the Congo, were recently added to the critically endangered species Red List, one step from extinction.

They are the largest primates on the planet.

 
Mirror journalist Tom Parry visits the eastern lowland gorilla (Photo: Rowan Griffiths / Daily Mirror)

Twenty years ago, before the Congo civil war – which has left 5.4 million people dead and still rumbles on today – there were 18,000. Now there are estimated to be just 3,800 left in the wild.

That is a population decline of 80% in a single generation.

Today the struggling rangers in the east of the Congo are begging for international assistance, or these magnificent animals could be gone for ever.

John Kahekwa, who recently received the Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa, tells me: “Twenty years ago, many tourists used to come gorilla trekking here.

“But the country has gone backwards so now the road is worn away and there are few facilities. We receive very few visitors.

“We very much want people to come back here, because the money from tourism will boost the local economy.

 
A Congolese man washes dirt and rocks in a river running through a gold mine near the eastern town of Kamituga (Photo: www.alamy.com)

"That will enable us to build up the buffer zone so people don’t cut down more of the gorillas’ habitat for farming and mining.

“I spend a lot of time going to communities to explain how important it is that we protect gorillas. It benefits all of us.

“But it is hard for people here to understand. They tell me that empty stomachs have no ears.”

John, who lives in the city of Bukavu, has created a foundation to encourage locals to live in peace alongside gorillas.

The global demand for coltan is such that the boom in uncontrolled mining in the Congo extends right across the gorillas ’ stronghold.

Coltan from the Congo is exported to China as electronic-grade tantalum powder for capacitors.

For years rebel militia have controlled the coltan trade and much of the eastern lowland gorillas’ natural habitat.

 
Mirror journalist Tom Parry visits the eastern lowland gorill (Photo: Rowan Griffiths / Daily Mirror)

Large mammals like the gorillas are shot down indiscriminately for meat to feed to miners and hungry troops.

One recent study identified 69 different armed groups operating in the main areas where the apes live.

Another threat has been the capture of young gorillas by poachers.

The spread of logging and farming into the mountain forest further reduces the gorillas’ ability to roam freely.

These apes are the most threatened of the four gorilla sub-species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which put the species on the Red List, says the population continues to decline by 5% every year.

Our journey to see a surviving family of 25 gorillas involved a bone-shaking journey by jeep down a rutted track and then a steep hike through dense tropical vegetation.

 
Coltan is used in modern electronic devices (Photo: Getty)

At 7,000-ft up a remote rainforest mountain, the sound of a male silverback beating his chest shatters the silence.

Later, we watch in awe as the huge gorilla grooms an orphaned male. The gigantic ape then suddenly stands up, towering over us, and bounds towards me.

One of our guides yanks my hand out of the way as the silverback, said to weigh 30st, powers by within a yard of me.

Luckily, the immense creature – the head of the family – is only hunting for leaves to eat.

Despite their fearsome reputation, much of it based on misconceptions formed by people seeing frustrated gorillas in zoos, these apes only ever attack if they feel threatened. Along comes a younger one; a three-year-old orphan, the guide whispers.

This cute ball of jet-black fur is curious and eager to check out her close relatives, the strangely-clothed human beings.

 
Coltan is used in smartphones (Photo: Getty)

World-renowned biologist Ian Redmond, who has escorted us here, imitates gorilla sounds to put the apes at ease.

He has been coming to the Congo and neighbouring Rwanda for 40 years.

We all wear face masks to prevent the animals picking up human viruses that could kill them.

This group of apes is among a handful that the rangers can monitor.

Elsewhere in the country the presence of armed bandits known as Mai-Mai makes it impossible to keep watch.

Each mobile phone contains about 40 milligrams of tantalum. At the coltan mine above Rubaya, scores of young miners wearing shorts and vests diced with death to scoop out the precious ore.

I watched as a group excavated a deep pit in the side of the mountain, leaving their friends above perched precariously over a sheer drop.

Such dangers are part of their daily routine, a risk they take for meagre returns. For 2lb of coltan – which can take a week to extract – they might make about £10.

 
The eastern lowland gorilla (Photo: Rowan Griffiths / Daily Mirror)

In the Congo, this represents a decent income. Foreign mining giants which sell coltan make the big profits in multimillion pound deals with phone manufacturers.

Meanwhile accidents continue to happen in remote mines across the Congo, in places days away from the nearest hospital.

Up to 100 miners were feared to be buried alive when a Rubaya mine collapsed in 2013.

Sophia Pickles, from environmental campaign group Global Witness, said laws are in place to ensure companies trade ethically with the Congo but bosses “aren’t doing nearly enough to ensure their mineral supply chains aren’t perpetuating fighting or harm to people and the environment”.

She added: “It is the people at the bottom of mineral supply chains who bear the cost of these irresponsible business practices – while companies far away cash in.”

My amazing 90-minute encounter with the gorillas concluded with seeing the huge silverback perch precariously in the fork of a tree as he ate.

As Ian told me, seeing the silverback is one of the most inspiring sights in the natural world. But in this remote war-ravaged region of the Congo, the gorillas are in mortal danger.

And in another generation this sight might be impossible. Gorillas once ruled these forests; now they cower in hidden pockets, defenceless against men with guns.

The precious ore

More than two thirds of the world’s coltan is mined in Africa – most of it in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2013, 260 tons of tantalum was extracted from coltan dug up in the two nations, almost half the 590 tons produced worldwide.

African output has more than doubled in a decade. In 2004 more than 800 tonnes of tantalum came from Australia but the company collapsed.

Mining is tightly controlled in Rwanda but in the neighbouring DRC much of it is under the control of armed gangs and battles for control have often led to conflict.

Democratic Republic of Congo

Ten times Britain’s size, the Democratic Republic of Congo is also deeply corrupt.

Mirror photographer Rowan Griffiths and I encountered its endemic racketeering when we tried to view its largest coltan mine at the other end of pretty Lake Kivu.

Before even getting my notebook out, we were surrounded by police and dozens of officials wanting to inspect our passports.

At every checkpoint on the way back, armed men were there to intimidate us. Eventually money was demanded for our passports to be handed back - summing up why few tourists venture to the DRC.

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