Global gorillas

Last summer things began to take a turn for the worst for the worlds’ mountain gorilla population. Stuck between warring rebels, government troops and local populations, the deaths of a mother and infant took the 2007 death toll to nine. An estimated 380 mountain gorillas live in the Virunga National Park and surrounding volcanoes region, representing more than half the world’s population.

Of course, it’s not only the wildlife that’s suffering. Since 1998 an estimated five million people have died, with hundreds of thousands more displaced by the troubles. With many living in refugee camps, there’s increasing pressure on the environment, particularly for fuel wood. The Virunga National Park is an obvious – and worrying – target for those who find themselves within reach.

But despite the troubles, the conservation efforts continue. According to Wikipedia:

Land invasions and intense poaching have challenged the park authorities to the limit, but most rangers have remained active. Since 1994 about 120 rangers have been killed in the line of duty protecting the park from illegal poaching and land acquisition. Amongst other military activity, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) have been been using the park as a safe haven when they come under sustained attack, such as Laurent Nkunda’s offensives against them between April and May 2007

Back in 2003, as part of a project called wildlive!, I worked with an international conservation organisation – Fauna & Flora International (FFI) – to help them explore how mobile phones could be used to help raise money and awareness for gorilla conservation and local livelihoods. We ended up with a game called “Silverback”, an eight-level epic taking the player through the life of a mountain gorilla from birth through to adulthood. The game was very well received by the mobile gaming industry, scoring highly in their reviews. Sadly, three years later the service was pulled. The game was dragged down with it and forced into early ‘virtual’ retirement.

After becoming increasingly aware of the escalating conflict last October, it occurred to me that the time was right for “Silverback” to return. Thinking through what would need to be done to bring the game back to life, I realised that I knew enough people to make it happen relatively easily and for little cost. Six months later the game has been updated, re-built to support newer phones and re-launched via a new website.

Back in 2003 there were more barriers to getting a mobile game to market than you could throw a stick, or mobile, at. Sadly, little has changed. To combat this and to keep costs down, avoid administrative headaches and to give us global coverage, we decided to follow Radiohead‘s example and allow people access to the product first for free, and let them decide how much they think it’s worth. They can then choose whether or not they want to donate to the cause, something which we obviously hope they will. In order to leverage the power of social networking, we have also set up a Silverbackers Facebook Group for people to join and show their support.

With no funding this is going to be a purely viral marketing affair. The whole project is highly experimental, too. How we measure success is unclear, but sometimes the best way to find out is to do.

To download “Silverback” on your phone, visit the Silverbackers Download page (and remember to donate!).

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