PRAGUE - Gorillas in Cameroon are finding an unlikely source of help - a wave of interest in the Czech Republic fed by a primate reality show and a zoo's fundraising drive using recycled mobile phones.
The birth of a baby gorilla at Prague Zoo was broadcast live in April on an Internet radio show starring the animals, which has proved a huge hit among the Czech public since it was launched in 2007.
The tiny ape's arrival coincided with the launch of the zoo's new project to raise money for a UNESCO-listed gorilla-breeding reserve in the western African nation of Cameroon with cash raised from used mobiles.
"Our class has brought 30 phones altogether. I had old phones at home so I brought five," said Maximilian Kovacs, 11, a school pupil who was among several hundred invited to visit the zoo for just one koruna (S$0.07) each, on condition that every class brings at least 20 cell phones.
"I asked my mum to ask her colleagues at work if they had old cell phones. She brought me two," his classmate Tereza Jileckova added.
Filling plastic tubes at the zoo entrance with old mobiles is just a game for the children.
But for the zoo, the goal is to "make the kids sensitive to the need to protect the gorillas but also to recycle products which contain dangerous waste," said Miroslav Bobek, director of the Prague zoo.
The zoo gets 10 korunas (S$0.70) for each phone from a recycling company and the money goes towards buying equipment for guards at the Dja gorilla reserve in Cameroon.
The equipment includes shoes, tents and binoculars.
He said there were around 60 "eco-guards" working day and night to protect the precious ecosystem in the tropical rain forest, which covers over half-a-million hectares in south-eastern Cameroon.
"These men are fighting a real war. Risking their lives and without adequate equipment, they fight against illegal exploitation of the forest and against poachers to protect gorillas, elephants and other animals," Bobek said.
"We are also planning to buy satellite phones for them so that they could call an ambulance if they are wounded by a bullet - something which has already happened," he added.
The reserve, on UNESCO's World Heritage list, is home to a number of protected species including gorillas, which are emblematic for Prague Zoo in particular.
The zoo's prominence rose in 2005 when public broadcaster Czech Radio launched an alternative reality show featuring gorillas as an antidote to Big Brother-style shows on commercial television.
What started as a spoof evolved into a unique project that sparked interest in the animals among the Czech public and helped raise money for the protection of gorillas in Africa through sales of books, DVDs and souvenirs.
In May 2007 people across the Czech Republic watched the birth of boy gorilla Tatu, a month after another baby gorilla was born dead in the zoo.
The latest gorilla birth in April this year was broadcast live on the website of DNES, one of the most widely read Czech dailies (www.idnes.cz), which took the show over from Czech Radio in April this year.
"On the site, people can watch non-stop what's happening in the gorilla pavilion owing to four cameras," said Petr Pravda, DNES deputy editor-in-chief.
The website also offers news about gorillas in the wild and other zoos worldwide and allows readers to send donations via text message.
The birth came as a welcome publicity boost for the start of the mobile recycling campaign, the first phase of which will last until August 31, with a possible second phase involving other Czech zoos, Bobek said.
He said that as well as raising money for the reserve in Cameroon the scheme had a second aim - restricting the mining of coltan or columbite-tantalite, a metallic ore used in the production of electronics, especially mobile phones.
The world's biggest coltan deposits are in central Africa where mining threatens gorilla populations, which are already hit by hunting for meat or for trophies despite laws protecting them as endangered species.
"As old phones are often resold, especially in third-world countries, we are giving a 100-percent guarantee that they (phones handed in at the zoo) will e recycled," said Bobek.