Mongabay.com is considered a leading source of information on tropical forests by some of the world's top ecologists and conservationists. TROPICAL RAINFORESTS: TROPICAL RAINFORESTS

AFROTROPICAL REALM

The vast majority of Africa's tropical moist and tropical rainforests exist in West and Central Africa. However, these forests are rapidly vanishing; according to the FAO, Africa lost the highest percentage of rainforests during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s of any biogeographical realm.

Map of Africa - Rhett Butler 2000
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Around the turn of the century, West Africa had some 193,000 sq. miles (500,000 sq. km) of coastal rainforest but today the tropical forests of West Africa—mostly lowland formations easily accessible from the coast—have been largely depleted by commercial exploitation, namely logging, and conversion for agriculture. Now, according to the figures from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, only 22.8 percent of West Africa's moist forests remain, much of this degraded. In more populous states, notably Nigeria, human population pressures have put a tremendous strain on forests, while other countries like Cte d'Ivoire have suffered extensive forest loss as a result of commercial logging and agriculture. The effects from forest loss are yet to be fully understood, though erosion has greatly increased as has the incidence of drought in the interior countries of Mali and Niger. These coastal forests appear to play a substantial role in maintaining rainfall in these interior countries.

The rainforests of Central Africa still cover a substantial area, although this expanse is declining. More than 70 percent of Africa's remaining rainforests are located in Central Africa, covering about 720,000 square miles (1.875 million square km). The bulk of this region's forests are found in the Congo Basin in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), Congo, and Gabon. Over the past decade, these forests have been threatened by masses of refugees fleeing rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the movement of local militias. Now that some form of peace has returned in most areas, logging and other development activities are expected to increase.

Threats


Sub-Saharan Africa has long been considered one of the poorest regions on earth despite its rich biological diversity and mineral wealth. The poor turn to the forests for subsistence agriculture, the collection of fuelwood, and the poaching of forest animals for food. The rapid population growth of the region—among the highest in the world—combined with high rates of urbanization have promoted these unsustainable activities by creating demand for bushmeat, fuelwood, and other forest products. Fuelwood makes up more than 8o percent of the total roundwood produced in the region.

On a commercial level, logging has greatly accelerated in Central Africa, much of it carried out by West African firms (Cte d'Ivoire especially) in the early 1990s which had largely cut through their own forests. However the situation changed rapidly in the mid-1990s after the January 1994 devaluation of the African (CFA) franc by 50 percent under the Structural Adjustment Program. Before devaluation, the difficulties of access, transport, and dealing with unstable governments, as well as the overvalued currency had made Central Africa a relatively expensive place to operate and slowed investment in timber industries. After devaluation, production costs fell and logging in the Central African rainforests became more competitive. Additionally, in order to improve their own economic situation (devaluation is especially hard on the poor since goods become relatively more expensive in their currency), many poor farmers cleared new fields from forests to plant higher-yielding crops that require the nutrients released by freshly slashed-and-burned forest. In the past few years, logging has skyrocketed as European and Asian timber firms (facing restrictions in their homelands from years of overharvesting) have moved into the region. Between 1990 and 1997, the volume of timber exported annually from countries of the Congo basin increased ten-fold to two million cubic meters. Though Asians only entered the African timber market in 1995, already the greatest demand for African wood comes from the Far East. For example, 85 percent of timber production in Gabon now goes to Asia. During 1996 alone, Asian timber firms gained control of 10-12.5 million acres (4-5 million ha) of rainforest in Central Africa. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 had a major impact on timber production and log prices in Central Africa. Today, European and Asian firms are particularly active in Central Africa.

Logging roads are opening vast areas of forest to colonists and poachers. Numerous infrastructure projects have been initiated by foreign companies. One major French aid agency that works in the region boldly states that its development projects only finance infrastructure necessary to French timber interests. The new government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire) is working on several large infrastructure contracts with South Africa to open up the forests for mineral and timber development. China has invested in infrastructure projects in several African nations.

The inflow of foreign firms does not necessarily bring benefits to most poor farmers and colonists. Though in many areas these industries provide the only form of work for these people, pay is menial and jobs are temporary. After the firm has exhausted the forest of its resources, it moves on, leaving a community that had become dependent on the firm for employment. Settlers then may burn surrounding forest lands, now degraded, for short-term, subsistence agriculture. In addition, most timber leaves the country as raw logs since export laws, like environmental regulations, are poorly enforced. Thus, the country does not maximize its potential benefits that could be derived from timber processing and the export of value-added goods like furniture. Finally, it is only a privileged few who generally share in the spoils of logging, oil, and mining. Virtually no benefits are returned to the people who are most impacted by development projects. Corruption is a major problem in many of these countries: Nigeria and Cameroon were recently rated among the most corrupt in the world. Post-colonial kleptocratic governments "produced by strong-man rule have proved uniformly inept, with a partial exception for pillage . . . [Most] foreign aid ends up in numbered accounts abroad" (Landes, 1998).

Outlook


The outlook for Central and West Africa's rainforests is not promising. Many countries have agreed in principle to conventions on biodiversity and forest preservation, but in practice these concepts of sustainable forestry are not enforced. Most governments lack the funds and technical know-how to make these projects a reality, and "paper parks" are common. Funding for most conservation projects comes from foreign sectors and 70-75 percent of forestry in the region is funded
by external resources. Additionally, high population growth rates combined with rural poverty make it difficult for the government to control local subsistence clearing and hunting. Equally challenging are the tremendous debt obligations facing the governments of these countries. Already terribly poor (16 of the world's 20 poorest countries are in Africa), by 2002 African countries with tropical rainforest had accumulated a foreign debt of more than US$200 billion, an almost insurmountable sum considering the low annual GDPs of most member countries. The easiest, most expedient way for such governments to service these debt payments is to sell their forest products and resources.

Nevertheless, there is hope for Africa's remaining rainforests. The Asian economic slow-down has provided precious time for African nations to reexamine their forestry policies. Various government agencies, NGOs, conservation organizations, and private industries have developed innovative schemes to incorporate locals into the sustainable management of rainforests. These community management programs show potential, but thus far represent only a minuscule fraction of forest land. Recently several organizations including the U.N. have put pressure on African governments to abandon tax incentives for practices that encourage deforestation, but provide virtually no return to most African people. In addition, the region, with its biodiversity and varied landscapes, has excellent potential for eco-tourism, though it is stymied by poor infrastructure and concerns over political stability, health, and safety. Finally, the region's biological wealth offers tremendous potential for bioprospecting for potentially useful drugs, food products, and other non-wood forest products.

Suggested reading - Books


Recent articles | Africa environmental news updates | XML

Nearly 90 percent of logging in the DRC is illegal
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How locals and conservationists saved the elephants of Mali amidst conflict and poverty
(04/02/2014) At a time when Africa's elephants are facing a relentless poaching crisis, one community has managed to safeguard their elephants in the most unlikely of places: Mali. In a country that has suffered from widespread poverty, environmental degradation, and, most recently, warfare, a collaboration between conservationists and the local community has kept Mali's elephants from extinction.


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(04/01/2014) Ten years ago, Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson photographed and wrote, a tribute to the expansive imagination of Africa's vast landscape, incredible people, and astonishing animals. As Marie and Cyril tell us below in this interview, now is the time to listen, consider, and conserve our ecology and our cultural relationships with the ecology that supports us each day.


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Rhino with bullet in its brain and hacked off horn wanders for days before being put down
(03/05/2014) Last week, visitors in Kruger National Park came on a horrifying sight of the poaching trade: a rhino, still alive, with its horn and part of its face chopped off. The gruesome photo of the young rhino went viral and sent South African authorities scrambling. Five days after the sighting, South African National Parks (SANParks) has announced they found the rhino and put it out of its misery.


South Africa loses nearly 150 rhinos to poachers so far this year
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Shoot to conserve: Corey Knowlton's rhino hunt escalates the debate over trophy hunting and environmentalism
(02/20/2014) 'After a long conversation with the FBI I have decided to temporarily suspend my activity on this page. I want to thank all of you who have commented [on] this important issue of Black Rhino Conservation.' – Corey Knowlton, Feb 3, 2014. This was the last post on Corey Knowlton's Facebook page. Knowlton is the hunter who won the Dallas Safari Club auction on January 11th to kill a Critically Endangered black rhino. All the money—$350,000—will go to a fund to protect rhinos. The plan is that sometime soon—once the paperwork clears the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—Knowlton will go to Namibia on a "trophy hunt" (accompanied by a park service official), shoot the designated rhino, and bring the old bull's hide back home to Texas.


Animals of the Serengeti – book review
(02/19/2014) Animals of the Serengeti: And Ngorongoro Conservation Area by Adam Scott Kennedy and Vicki Kennedy is an easy-to-use guidebook that is also very readable. The region covered by the book is the Greater Serengeti area bounded in the west by Lake Victoria and the east by Lake Manyara in Tanzania, and in the north by southern Kenya.


Microsoft buys Madagascar carbon credits
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Ivory trade's shocking toll: 65% of world's forest elephants killed in 12 years (warning: graphic image)
(02/12/2014) Forest elephants have suffered unprecedented butchery for their ivory tusks over the past decade, according to new numbers released by conservationists today in London. Sixty-five percent of the world's forest elephants have been slaughtered by poachers over the last dozen years, with poachers killing an astounding nine percent of the population annually. Lesser-known than their savannah cousins, a genetics study in 2010 found that forest elephants are in fact a distinct species, as far removed from savannah elephants as Asian elephants are from mammoths. These findings make the forest elephant crisis even more urgent.


Obama announces new strategy to tackle wildlife trafficking, including toughening ivory ban
(02/12/2014) Yesterday, the Obama administration announced an ambitious new strategy to help tackle the global illegal wildlife trade, including a near-complete ban on commercial ivory. The new strategy will not only push over a dozen federal agencies to make fighting wildlife trafficking a new priority, but will also focus on reducing demand for wildlife parts and actively engaging the international community. The U.S. is the world's second largest destination for illegal wildlife trafficking after China.


Madagascar's new president pledges to fight illegal logging
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Total says it will not drill in any World Heritage Sites
(02/03/2014) One of the world's largest oil and gas companies, Total, has committed to leave the planet's UNESCO World Heritage Sites untouched, according to the United Nations. The UN says the French energy giant has sent written confirmation that it will not explore or extract fossil fuels from any of the world's over 200 natural World Heritage Sites.


Predator appreciation: how saving lions, tigers, and polar bears could rescue ourselves
(01/29/2014) In the new book, In Predatory Light: Lions and Tigers and Polar Bears, authors Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, Sy Montgomery, and John Houston, and photographers Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson share with us an impassioned and detailed appeal to appreciate three of the world's biggest predators: lions, tigers, and polar bears. Through lengthy discussions, combining themes from scientific conservation to local community folklore, In Predatory Light takes us step by step deeper into the wild world of these awe-inspiring carnivores and their varied plight as they facedown extinction.


Over 1,000 rhinos killed by poachers in South Africa last year
(01/17/2014) In another sign that Africa's poaching crisis has gotten completely out of control, South Africa lost 1,004 rhinos to poachers last year. According to the numbers released today by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs, 2013 was the worst year yet for rhino poaching in the country with nearly 3 rhinos killed every day.


Trophy hunters auction off life of Critically Endangered black rhino
(01/13/2014) The Dallas Safari Club has auctioned off a permit to shoot-and-kill a Critically Endangered black rhino in Namibia for $350,000. The club says the proceeds from the auction will aid rhino conservation, but the move has upset many wildlife organizations and attracted protestors outside the closed-door auction. In fact the issue has become so contentious that the FBI is currently investigating purported death threats against the Dallas Safari Club members over the issue. Currently, less than 5,000 black rhinos survive in the wild today, a drop of 90 percent since 1960 as the species has been decimated by poaching and habitat loss.





Unless otherwise specified, this article was written by Rhett A. Butler [Bibliographic citation for this page]

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Last updated: 4 Feb 2006






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