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The Congo


By Rhett Butler   Google+      Last updated: July 24, 2013





Known as the heart of darkness by Joseph Conrad, the Congo region has long conjured up thoughts of pygmies, mythical beasts, dreadful plagues, and cannibals. It is a land made famous by the adventures of Stanley and Livingstone and known as a place of brutality and violence for its past -- the days of the Arab slave and ivory trade, its long history of tribal warfare -- and its present -- the ethnic violence and massacres of today.


The Congo River


The Congo is the Earth's second largest river by volume, draining an area of 3.7 million square kilometers (1.4 million square miles) known as the Congo Basin. Much of the basin is covered by rich tropical rainforests and swamps. Together these ecosystems make up the bulk of Central Africa's rainforest, which at 178 million hectares (2005) is the world's second largest rainforest.


The Congo Rainforest


While nine countries (Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia) have part of their territory in the Congo Basin, conventionally six countries with extensive forest cover in the region are generally associated with the Congo rainforest: Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. (Technically most of Gabon and parts of the Republic of Congo are in the Ogooue River Basin, while a large chunk of Cameroon is in the Sanaga River Basin). Of these six countries, DRC contains the largest area of rainforest, with 107 million hectares, amounting to 60 percent of Central Africa's lowland forest cover.



Lowland rainforest coverGross annual deforestation (%)Gross annual degradation (%)
Country(1000 ha)(% of land)1990-20002000-20051990-20002000-2005
Cameroon2003742%0.10%0.17%0.08%0.14%
Congo2093261%0.08%0.16%0.04%0.08%
CAR58339%0.09%0.10%0.04%0.05%
DRC10718146%0.15%0.32%0.02%0.16%
Gabon2241684%0.08%0.07%0.01%0.04%
Eq Guinea216377%0.13%0.00%0.02%0.00%
Central Africa17856244%0.13%0.26%0.07%0.14%
Data sources: Forest cover (Mayaux et al 2013); deforestation and degradation rates (COMIFAC 2012)


The Congo rainforest is known for its high levels of biodiversity, including more than 600 tree species and 10,000 animal species. Some of its most famous residents include forest elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, okapi, leopards, hippos, and lions. Some of these species have a significant role in shaping the character of their forest home. For example, researchers have found that Central African forests generally have taller trees but lower density of small trees than forests in the Amazon or Borneo. The reason? Elephants, gorillas, and large herbivores keep the density of small trees very low through predation, reducing competition for large trees. But in areas where these animals have been depleted by hunting, forests tend to be shorter and denser with small trees. Therefore it shouldn't be surprising that old-growth forests in Central Africa store huge volumes of carbon in their vegetation and tree trunks (39 billion tons, according to a recent study), serving as an important buffer against climate change.


Threats to the Congo Rainforest


Central Africa's deforestation rate since 1990 has been the lowest of any major forest region in the world. However there are still a number of threats to the health of the Congo rainforest and its residents.

The biggest drivers of deforestation in the Congo rainforest over the past 20 years have been small-scale subsistence agriculture, clearing for charcoal and fuelwood, urban expansion, and mining. Industrial logging has been the biggest driver of forest degradation. However it's important not to understate the impact of logging in the region. Logging roads have opened up vast areas of the Congo to commercial hunting, leading to a poaching epidemic in some areas and a more than 60 percent drop in the region's forest elephant population in less than a decade. Furthermore, logging roads have provided access to speculators and small-holders who clear land for agriculture.

Looking forward, the biggest threats to the Congo rainforest come from industrial logging and conversion for large-scale agriculture. Some environmentalists fear that the Congo could be on the verge of a massive increase in deforestation for palm oil, rubber, and sugar production.


12 key articles about the Congo Rainforest


NGO hits out at study for downplaying logging threat in Congo rainforest

(07/23/2013) Global Witness has called in question conclusions reached in a study on logging in the Congo rainforest. The group, which has published a series of investigative reports on abuses by logging companies operating the world's second largest tropical forest, said that a review published Monday in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B '[presents] a misleading and inaccurate picture of the present and growing threats to the Congo Basin rainforest.'


Hunting, logging could threaten long-term health of Congo forests by wiping out key animals

(07/23/2013) Unsustainable hunting of forest elephants, gorillas, forest antelopes, and other seed-dispersers could have long-term impacts on the health and resilience of Congo Basin rainforests, warns a study published today in a special issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B. Conducting a review of more than 160 papers and reports on trends in wildlife populations, hunting, and land use in the Congo Basin, an international team of researchers conclude that unless effective management plans are put into place, hunting pressure in the region is likely to increase, with knock-on ecological effects.


Deforestation rate falls in Congo Basin countries

(07/22/2013) Deforestation has fallen in Congo Basin countries over the past decade despite a sharp increase in the rate of forest clearing in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to a new study published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B as part of a set of 18 papers on the region's tropical forests. The special issue, which was put together by Oxford University's Yadvinder Malhi, covers a range of issues relating to the rainforests of the Congo Basin, including deforestation, the impacts of global change, the history and key characteristics of the region's forests, and resource extraction, among others.


Seeing the forest through the elephants: slaughtered elephants taking rainforest trees with them

(03/11/2013) Elephants are vanishing. The booming illegal ivory trade is decimating the world's largest land animal, but no place has been harder hit than the Congo basin and its forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). The numbers are staggering: a single park in Gabon, Minkebe National Park, has seen 11,100 forest elephants killed in the last eight years; Okapi Faunal Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has lost 75 percent of its elephants in fifteen years; and a new study in PLoS ONE estimates that in total 60 percent of the world's forest elephants have been killed in the last decade alone. But what does that mean for the Congo forest?


Activists warn of industrial palm oil expansion in Congo rainforest

(02/21/2013) Industrial oil palm plantations are spreading from Malaysia and Indonesia to the Congo raising fears about deforestation and social conflict. A new report by The Rainforest Foundation UK (RFUK), dramatically entitled The Seeds of Destruction, announces that new palm oil plantations in the Congo rainforest will soon increase fivefold to half a million hectares, an area nearly the size of Delaware. But conservationists warn that by ignoring the lessons of palm oil in Southeast Asia, this trend could be disastrous for the region's forests, wildlife, and people.


Foreign loggers and corrupt officials flouting logging moratorium in the Democratic Republic of Congo

(11/08/2012) In 2002 the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) announced a moratorium on commercial logging in a bid to save rapidly falling forests, however a new report by Global Witness alleges that industrial loggers are finding a way around the logging freeze. Through unscrupulous officials, foreign companies are abusing artisanal permits—meant for local community logging—to clear-cut wide swathes of tropical forest in the country. These logging companies are often targeting an endangered tree—wenge (Millettia laurentii)—largely for buyers in China and Europe.


Congolese experts needed to protect Congo Basin rainforests

(06/20/2012) This summer, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is expected to approve a new higher education strategy which the country has developed with the World Bank and other international donors. The shape of this educational reform initiative will be critical to Congo's future in many ways. It could finally offer Congo’s long-suffering people a route into the 21st century. It will also help determine the future of the DRC’s forests. Nearly half of the Congo Basin’s remaining rainforest is in the DRC—yet the critical role of Congolese experts in forestry, agricultural science, wildlife management and other rural sciences in protecting this forest is not widely recognized.


Deforestation increases in the Congo rainforest

(03/20/2012) Deforestation in the Congo Basin has increased sharply since the 1990s, reports an extensive new assessment of forests in the six-nation region. Released by the Central African Forests Commission (COMIFAC) and members of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership, The State of the Forest finds that the region's annual gross deforestation rate doubled from 0.13 percent to 0.26 percent between the 1990s and the 2000-2005 period. Gross degradation caused by logging, fire, and other impacts increased from 0.07 percent to 0.14 percent on an annual basis. Despite the jump, rates in the Congo Basin remain well below those in Latin America and Southeast Asia, but the region is seen as a prime target for future agroindustrial expansion.


Unsung heroes: the life of a wildlife ranger in the Congo

(11/01/2011) The effort to save wildlife from destruction worldwide has many heroes. Some receive accolades for their work, but others live in obscurity, doing good—sometimes even dangerous—work everyday with little recognition. These are not scientists or big-name conservationists, but wildlife rangers, NGO staff members, and low level officials. One of these conservation heroes is Bunda Bokitsi, chief guard of the Etate Patrol Post for Salonga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In a nation known for a prolonged civil war, desperate poverty, and corruption—as well as an astounding natural heritage—Bunda Bokitsi works everyday to secure Salonga National Park from poachers, bushmeat hunters, and trappers.


African forests store 25% of tropical forest carbon

(06/22/2011) Forests in sub-Saharan Africa account for roughly a quarter of total tropical forest carbon, according to a comprehensive assessment of the world's carbon stocks published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).


How do we save Africa's forests?

(06/19/2011) Africa's forests are fast diminishing to the detriment of climate, biodiversity, and millions of people of dependent on forest resources for their well-being. But is the full conservation of Africa's forests necessary to mitigate global climate change and ensure environmental stability in Africa? A new report by The Forest Philanthropy Action Network (FPAN), a non-profit that provides research-based advice on funding forest conservation, argues that only the full conservation of African forests will successfully protect carbon stocks in Africa.


Logging roads rapidly expanding in Congo rainforest

(06/07/2007) Logging roads are rapidly expanding in the Congo rainforest, report researchers who have constructed the first satellite-based maps of road construction in Central Africa. The authors say the work will help conservation agencies, governments, and scientists better understand how the expansion of logging is impacting the forest, its inhabitants, and global climate.



Congo index


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    Congo charts


    Forest cover in Congo rainforest, by country
    Forest cover in Congo rainforest, by country


    Rainforest cover in Africa, by country
    Rainforest cover in Africa, by country


    Chart: African Deforestation
    Deforestation in Africa


    Forest cover in Congo rainforest countries
    Forest cover in Congo rainforest countries


    Chart: Deforestation in Congo countries, 2000-2010
    Deforestation in Congo countries, 2000-2010


    Chart: Forest degradation in Congo countries, 2000-2010
    Forest degradation in Congo countries, 2000-2010


    Chart: forest loss in the DRC, 2000-2010
    Chart: forest loss in the DRC, 2000-2010




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    Recommended Reading on the Congo

    + Mean and Lowly Things: Snakes, Science, and Survival in the Congo
    by Kate Jackson

    + In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz
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    + The Last Hero
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    + The River Congo
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    + Heart of Darkness
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    + Facing the Congo
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    + The Troubled Heart of Africa
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    + The Forest People
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