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
Click for larger image
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 Côte 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 (Côte 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

Firewood fervor may turn Zimbabwe into an 'outright desert'
(03/05/2015) In developing countries like Zimbabwe and in much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, fuelwood is a major source of energy for cooking and heating for people who can't afford electricity. A 2014 study published in Resources and Environment highlights the severity of this issue in Zimbabwe.


Somali charcoal: funding terrorism through deforestation
(03/05/2015) Militant terrorist group Al-Shabaab funds itself, in part, through the illegal production and sale of charcoal, turning Somalia’s trees into “black gold.” Because areas of the country controlled by the group aren’t accessible to researchers, it’s difficult to determine just how many trees are cut down to fuel Al-Shabaab’s violent agenda.


Researchers, locals work together to save Ethiopia's 'church forests'
(03/03/2015) Presenting a workshop on ecosystem services to a roomful of priests in Ethiopia may seem like an unlikely scenario for a conservation biologist to end up in, but for Meg Lowman, it’s an essential part of spreading her passion for bottom-up conservation. “Canopy Meg,” as she’s fondly referred to by her colleagues, believes in the power of local communities to be part of the solution, often in ways that are more effective than researchers can make alone.


How the Sahara keeps the Amazon rainforest going
(03/02/2015) Scientists have just uncovered an incredible link between the world's largest desert (the Sahara) and its largest rainforest (the Amazon). New research published in Geophysical Research Letters theorizes that the Sahara Desert replenishes phosphorus in the Amazon rainforest via vast plumes of desert dust blowing over the Atlantic Ocean.


To keep big cats out, use a cat door
(02/26/2015) As a hunter searches for prey, heat radiates off the sun stroked horizon distorting the landscape. At the snap of a twig and a rustle in thorny acacia the hunter is off. Keen eyed hearing pinpoint its prey: the cheetah spots an impala and immediately gives chase. The chase won't last long though. The impala lives on a farm and is protected by a high fence to keep predators out. But these fences aren't fool proof.


Rainforest loss increased in the 2000s, concludes new analysis
(02/25/2015) Loss of tropical forests accelerated roughly 60 percent during the 2000s, argues a paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The findings contradict previous research suggesting that deforestation slowed since the 1990s. The study is based on a map of 1990 forest cover developed last year by Do-Hyung Kim and colleagues from the University of Maryland. The map, which includes 34 countries that contain 80 percent of the world's tropical forests, enabled the researchers to establish a consistent baseline for tracking forest cover change across regions and countries over time.


Scientists sound the alarm on African palm oil investment
(02/20/2015) Africa’s people, forests and wildlife are in trouble if the mostly unbridled expansion of oil palm in West and Central Africa is allowed to continue unchecked, says an organization of African scientists.


Selective logging causes long-term changes to forest structure
(02/18/2015) Selective logging is causing long-term changes to tropical forests in Africa by facilitating the growth of weeds and vines, which reduces plant diversity and diminishes carbon storage, reports a new paper published in the journal Ecological Research. The paper is based on field data from more than 500 plots in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cameroon and Gabon.


Illegal logging still a big issue in Cameroon
(02/13/2015) Cameroon is struggling to make progress in combatting illegal logging. Regulatory budgets are too thin to protect the country’s vast tracts of Congolian Rainforest. And demand domestically and abroad make the financial incentives for both the informal sector and Cameroon’s leaders too difficult to pass up, leading to an illicit timber trade beset with corruption.


Pollinator collapse could lead to a rise in malnutrition
(02/09/2015) Saving the world's pollinators may be a public health issue, according to recent research. Scientists have long believed that pollinators are important for human nutrition, but this is first time they have tested the hypothesis. What they found is disturbing: pollinator collapse could increase nutrient deficiency across local populations by a up to 56 percent in four developing counties.


Madagascar establishes a sanctuary for sharks
(02/06/2015) The government of Madagascar has established the Indian Ocean island's first shark sanctuary in an area famous for its marine biodiversity, reports the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).


Videos: new film series highlights bringing Gorongosa back to life
(01/29/2015) Tracking lions, photographing bats, collecting insects, bringing elephants home: it's all part of a day's work in Gorongosa National Park. This vast wilderness in Mozambique was ravaged by civil war. However, a unique and ambitious 20-year-effort spearheaded by Greg Carr through the Gorongosa Restoration Project is working to restore this rich and little-studied African wilderness.


Adorbs: scientists capture first photos of African golden cat kittens
(01/28/2015) The African golden cat is arguably the continent's least known feline, inhabiting dense tropical forests, almost never seen, and, of course, long-upstaged by Africa's famous felines. But a few intrepid scientists are beginning to uncover the long-unknown lives of these wild cats. Researchers working in Uganda's Kibale National Park have captured remarkable photos of African golden cats...with kittens.


Endangered chimp habitat under threat from climate change
(01/22/2015) Climate change could make life more difficult for the world’s rarest chimp subspecies, the Nigerian-Cameroon chimpanzee, reported a team of scientists in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology earlier this week.


1,215 rhinos butchered in South Africa in 2014
(01/22/2015) 1,215: that's the total number of rhinos butchered last year in South Africa for their horns. The number represents another annual record—the seventh in a row—topping last year's total by 195 rhinos. South Africa houses the bulk of the world's rhinos (around 80 percent), but has also become the center of the illegal poaching trade.


Scandal and intrigue overshadow environment at the Simandou mine in Guinea
(01/20/2015) Critically Endangered chimpanzees stand to lose their home over giant iron mine in West Africa. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa decades ago well-laid plans often crumbled to dust in the unpredictable confusion of life there. We just muttered with resignation, 'WAWA' – West Africa wins again. The Simandou iron ore mine in Guinea could be one of the biggest WAWAs the region has ever produced.


Did palm oil expansion play a role in the Ebola crisis?
(01/14/2015) The Ebola outbreak in West Africa may have been the result of complex economic and agricultural policies developed by authorities in Guinea and Liberia, according to a new commentary in Environment and Planning A. Looking at the economic activities around villages where Ebola first emerged, the investigators analyzed a shift in land-use activities in Guinea's forested region, particularly an increase in oil palm.


How black rhinos and local communities help each other in Namibia
(01/07/2015) Africa's rhinos are in a state of crisis. Poaching for their horn has resulted in the deaths of thousands of animals and pushed the continent's two species—the white and black rhino—against the wall. Yet, despite the crisis, there are pockets of rhino territory where poaching remains rare and rhinos live comparatively unmolested. Indeed, one of the brightest spots for rhinos is in Namibia.


Top 10 Environmental Stories of 2014
(12/23/2014) In 2014, the unimaginable happened: companies representing the majority of palm oil production and trade agreed to stop cutting down rainforests and draining peatlands for new oil palm plantations. After years of intense campaigning by environmentalists and dire warnings from scientists, nearly two dozen major producers, traders, and buyers established zero deforestation policies.


When predators attack, plants grow fewer thorns
(12/17/2014) Crisp lines of light begin to play out across the landscape. As the morning light grows, blades of grass take shape and, amongst rocky outcrops, green acacia breaks the yellow and gold of the savannah. Stirring in this early morning atmosphere is the African impala, an ungulate that typically grazes at dusk and dawn.


Deforestation taking toll on nesting birds in Cameroon
(12/17/2014) The tropical montane forests of the Cameroon mountain ranges boast fertile volcanic soils, high biodiversity of grasses and non-woody plants, as well as many endemic bird species that can be found only in this high-altitude region. Yet, many of these endemic bird species may be at risk due to increased nest predation linked with human-induced forest degradation, according to a new study.


Relief for Kenya’s rare coastal forest
(12/09/2014) In October this year, CAMAC Energy, an oil and gas exploration and production company, announced that they would conduct seismic surveys for oil and gas within Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, one of the last remaining fragments of coastal forests in East Africa. But following immense pressure from the environmental front, CAMAC Energy cancelled their plans to conduct surveys inside the forest.


One-two punch: farming, global warming destroying unique East African forests
(12/03/2014) Lush mountains speckle East Africa's grasslands and desert, from Mozambique to Ethiopia. These isolated habitats are home to a plethora of species, and are considered by scientists to be some of the most biodiverse regions in the world. However, their forests are being cut down for farmland and are threatened by global warming, putting at risk multitudes of species that have nowhere else to go.


New survey finds surprisingly large population of endangered owl
(12/03/2014) The Anjouan scops owl—an elusive owl found only on its tiny eponymous island—was once considered among the world's most endangered owls, and even the most threatened birds. However, the first in-depth survey of the owls on the island finds that, in fact, the population is far larger than initially estimated.


Nano-tags track baby sea turtles during their first few hours
(12/03/2014) Baby sea turtles vanish after they scamper into the ocean. Years later, juvenile turtles may pop up thousands of kilometers away, but often scientists don't see them again until they return to their birthplaces to nest on the beach. Now, using tiny tracking tags weighing no more than two watermelon seeds, a team has followed newborn loggerhead turtles during their first critical hours at sea, revealing how they evade predators and hitch rides on the ocean's currents.





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

Other resources

Contact me if you have suggestions on other rainforest-related environmental sites and resources for this country.




Last updated: 4 Feb 2006






what's new | rainforests home | for kids | help | madagascar | search | about | languages | contact

Copyright Rhett Butler 1994-2015

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions generated from mongabay.com operations (server, data transfer, travel) are mitigated through an association with Anthrotect,
an organization working with Afro-indigenous and Embera communities to protect forests in Colombia's Darien region.
Anthrotect is protecting the habitat of mongabay's mascot: the scale-crested pygmy tyrant.

"Rainforest" is used interchangeably with "rain forest" on this site. "Jungle" is generally not used.