The Congo Rainforest

By Rhett A. Butler
August 1, 2020

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.

Lowland gorilla in Gabon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler  

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.

Map Africa's tropical rainforests. Click to enlarge.
NASA images of the Congo Basin.
CountryPrimary forest extent
(million hectares)
Primary forest extent
Share of land mass
(million hectares)
Primary forest loss
Tree cover extent
(million hectares)
Tree cover change
DR Congo9975197044%-4.6%1879517847.1%
Equatorial Guinea218736378%-2.6%25382724.3%

This data is from Global Forest Watch 2020 using a 30 percent tree cover thresh hold. All figures are hectares. The data includes tropical forest cover ranging from tropical dry forests to tropical rainforests.

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 2012 study), serving as an important buffer against climate change.

Forest elephant in Gabon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler  

Threats to the Congo Rainforest

Central Africa's deforestation rate between 1990-2010 was the lowest of any major forest region in the world. However deforesation trended upward during the 2010s with expansion of industrial logging and conversion for large-scale agriculture.

The biggest drivers of deforestation in the Congo rainforest over the past 30 years have been small-scale subsistence agriculture, clearing for charcoal and fuelwood, urban expansion, and mining. Industrial logging has been the largest 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 plantations, especially for palm oil, rubber, and sugar production.

Forest cover in the Congo Basin

Forest loss in the Congo Basin

Annual primary forest loss and tree cover loss in the Congo Basin since 2002.


Biodiversity in the Congo Rainforest

Relatve to other great rainforests, the Congo Basin is known for large, charismatic species of wildlife, including the lowland gorilla; the okapi, a type of forest giraffe; the bonobo; forest elephants; the chimpanzee; leopards; and hippos.

Research has shown that trees in the Congo basin tend to be taller and occur at a lower density compared with Southeast Asia and the Amazon.

Comparison between forests in Congo, Borneo, and the Amazon. Trees in the Congo rainforest are taller, occur at a lower density, and store a lot of carbon. More information.


Species counts for Congo Basin countries
D.R. Congo1087244430294148011007
Republic of Congo606751973447716000
Central African Republic711562191981643602
Equatorial Guinea43349174735513250


Key news articles about the Congo Rainforest

Oil exploration at odds with peatland protection in the Congo Basin
The peatlands of the Congo Basin are home to more than just massive carbon stocks and some of our closest — and most threatened — relatives in the animal kingdom, including gorillas and chimpanzees. They may also blanket a giant cauldron of oil, which is tempting investors and governments to develop Central Africa’s Cuvette Centrale, comprising these boggy forests. A recent report, published Feb. 28 and led by the investigative NGO Global Witness, suggests that the surging interest in the Cuvette Centrale’s potential oil reserves is overshadowing efforts to keep the ecosystem intact.

Subsistence farming topples forests near commercial operations in Congo
The effects of commercial logging, mining and farming can ripple beyond the boundaries of the operations, leading to the substantial loss and degradation of nearby forest for subsistence agriculture, a new study on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has found.

Saving the forests of the Congo Basin
It was an ambitious project from the start: to capture the Congo Basin rainforest in the pages of a book. Stretching across an area larger than Saudi Arabia, the world’s second-largest rainforest straddles six countries in Central Africa. Many are crippled by corruption, civil conflict, and seemingly solution-less problems at the intersection of poverty and environmental stewardship. The loss of the Congo Basin’s forests has lurched along more slowly than in the Amazon rainforest or the jungles of Southeast Asia, but many experts worry that that trend won’t hold. The region’s growing population and the need for economic development have already led to the rising destruction of unique ecosystems to make way for farms, mines and timber plantations.

To protect the Congolese peatlands, protect local land rights
LOKOLAMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Sometime in March, I found myself trudging forward in a remote swamp in the heart of the Congo rainforest. As I worriedly tried to keep my boots from getting sucked in by the soft, brown mud, I wondered how far we could go on. It was our final day. In the two weeks prior, our team of British and Congolese researchers, together with men from the local village of Lokolama, had cut a 4-kilometer (2.5-mile) trail into this dense, swampy forest. It had proved to be painstakingly slow work. Some days were spent walking up and down the trail for up to eight hours, which only left us with a few hours of sunlight to actually work. But that day, upon reaching the furthest point yet, we tried to push for a few hundred meters more with the little light that was left — all to answer one big question: How much mud were we actually walking on?.

Report finds projects in DRC ‘REDD+ laboratory’ fall short of development, conservation goals
The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) released a new report that found that 20 REDD+ projects in a province in DRC aren’t set to address forest conservation and economic development — the primary goals of the strategy.

Oil palm, rubber could trigger ‘storm’ of deforestation in the Congo Basin
Earthsight documented approximately 500 square kilometers (193 square miles) of deforestation to clear the way for new rubber and oil palm plantations in Central Africa’s rainforest countries in the past five years. The team also found that companies in five Central African countries hold licenses for industrial agriculture on another 8,400 square kilometers (3,243 square miles) of land. The investigators warn that thousands of hectares of forest could fall to industrial agriculture in the Congo Basin, the world’s second-largest rainforest, if governance of the forest doesn’t improve.

New carbon map will help protect the DRC’s rainforests
The DRC is home to 60 percent of the Congo rainforest, the second-largest contiguous tract of tropical forests in the world. Researchers were able to map the aboveground biomass in the DRC down to the one-hectare level using high-resolution airborne Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR, in combination with satellite imagery and machine learning geospatial algorithms.

The people of DRC’s forests
The West African country of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to some of the world’s most important forest resources, but is plagued by a host of complex challenges. Here, Leonora Baumann and Etienne Maury tell a few stories of DRC’s forests through the eyes of the people who live there.

Successful forest protection in DRC hinges on community participation
The tens of millions of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo who depend on the forest must be considered to keep the world’s second largest rainforest intact.

World’s largest tropical peatlands discovered in swamp forests of Congo Basin
A study published in the journal Science Advances this month found that, between 2000 and 2013, the global area of intact forest landscape declined by 7.2 percent. Certification of logging concessions, which aims to ensure sustainable forest management practices, had a “negligible” impact on slowing the fragmentation of intact forest landscapes (IFLs) in the Congo Basin, according to the study.

Logging in certified concessions drove intact forest landscape loss in Congo Basin
The peatlands, which weren’t even known to exist as recently as five years ago, were revealed to cover 145,500 square kilometers (or more than 17,500 square miles), an area larger than England, and to sequester some 30 billion metric tons of carbon.

An agribusiness revolution is needed to save Africa’s last great apes
Since 2005 up to 227,000 square kilometers (87,645 square miles), an area nearly the size of Ghana, has been acquired in sub-Saharan Africa for large-scale agricultural and forestry concessions. And more concessions are on the way.

Roads to ruin: Africa’s massive infrastructure expansions could have major consequences
Dysfunction plagues DRC’s logging industry, say conservation and watchdog groups, but the government and timber companies want to grow the sector.

‘Chaos’ in Congo’s logging sector
Researchers find the continent’s “development corridors” stand to affect important wildlife habitat and thousands of protected areas.

Nearly 90 percent of logging in the DRC is illegal
The forestry sector in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is completely out of control, according to a new eye-opening report. Put together by the Chatham House, the report estimates that at least 87 percent of logging in the DRC was illegal in 2011, making the DRC possibly the most high-risk country in the world for purchasing legal wood products.

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.

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.

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).

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.


Okapi, a forest giraffe endemic to the Congo rainforest. Photo by Rhett A. Butler  


Oil firm Perenco eyes new blocks in DRC amid criticism of its track record (Oct 24 2023)
- Oil multinational Perenco has bid on two new oil blocks being auctioned off by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- Perenco operates the country’s only oil production facilities, at Muanda, near the mouth of the Congo River.
- Local and international critics accuse the oil company of polluting the environment, affecting fishing and farming, as well as residents’ health; the company denies this.

What would it cost to protect the Congo Rainforest? (Aug 29 2023)
- The Congo Basin holds the world’s second-largest rainforest — the majority of which is in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — playing a vital role in carbon storage and ecological services that millions of people and species rely upon.
- However, the DRC is a nation with the second-highest rate of tropical deforestation behind Brazil. Meanwhile, Gabon says it has acted to protect its forests but hasn’t reaped the promised rewards.
- International commitments to protect the Congo Rainforest are historically meager compared with what experts say is actually needed, and many of these commitments go unfulfilled.
- On this episode of Mongabay Explores the Congo Basin, we speak with experts about what’s needed to overcome hurdles to financing forest protection to benefit conservation, climate and communities: Paolo Cerutti, senior scientist and DRC unit head at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR-ICRAF); Chadrack Kafuti at Ghent University; Wahida Patwa Patwa-Shah, senior regional technical specialist, UNDP Climate Hub; and Lee White, minister of water, forests, the sea and environment in Gabon.

A just energy transition requires better governance & equity in the DRC (Jul 19 2023)
- The global energy transition has increased demand for critical minerals involved in the making of products such as lithium-ion batteries, solar panels and other renewable energy sources.
- In the Democratic Republic of Congo, this demand has fueled a poorly regulated mining sector that has forced Indigenous communities off their land, polluted water and air, and given little back in the way of infrastructure or development.
- The DRC has also recently opened 27 blocks of land for oil exploration under the auspices of lifting the nation out of poverty, but our guests say the handling of these other mineral revenues doesn’t bode well for an equitable oil boom.
- Joseph Itongwa Mukumo, an Indigenous community member of Walikale in the North Kivu province and director of ANAPA-DRC, and Christian-Géraud Neema Byamungu, Francophone editor at the China Global South Project, speak with Mongabay about the impacts of mining on local and Indigenous communities and what DRC residents need for a just energy transition.

Big potential and immense challenges for great ape conservation in the Congo Basin, experts say (Jun 28 2023)
- Great apes are on track to lose 94% of their range to climate change by 2050 if humans do nothing to address the problem, according to research.
- In the great apes stronghold of the Congo Basin, national interests in natural resource exploitation, a lack of security in areas like the Albertine Rift, hunting, and the illegal wildlife trade all greatly impact populations of bonobos and mountain gorillas.
- In this episode of Mongabay Explores, Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Kirsty Graham, Terese Hart, and Sally Coxe speak with Mongabay about the threats to bonobos and mountain gorillas, the lessons learned from decades of conservation efforts, the importance of great apes for the protection of Congo Basin rainforest, and ways forward for conservation as well as livelihoods for Indigenous and local communities.

New data show 10% increase in primary tropical forest loss in 2022 (Jun 27 2023)
- Globally, the tropics lost 4.1 million hectares (10.1 million acres) of primary forest in 2022, 10% more than in 2021.
- These losses occurred despite the pledges of 145 countries at COP26 in 2021 to increase efforts to reduce deforestation and halt it by 2030; the new data, from the University of Maryland, puts the world far off track for meeting the goal of zero deforestation.
- According to Frances Seymour of World Resources Institute, there is an urgent need to increase financing for protecting and restoring forests.

Tap African knowledge and culture for Congo Basin forest conservation (commentary) (Jun 5 2023)
- The Congo Basin is home to the world’s second largest rainforest, but it is under increasing strain from development, logging, mining, and other pressures.
- One of the key ways to slow the loss of forest is to engage local communities which live in the area, whose cultures are deeply rooted in stewardship the land, and have a strong connection to the forest.
- “By tapping into African culture and engaging local communities, the conservation of the Congo Basin forest can be achieved in a sustainable and effective manner,” a new op-ed argues.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Survival and economics complicate the DRC’s bushmeat and wild animal trade (May 30 2023)
- Hunting for bushmeat can impact the populations of rare and threatened wildlife in forests around the world.
- In the Democratic Republic of Congo, subsistence hunting is often intertwined with the trade of bushmeat and in some cases live animals to sate the demand from larger markets, which can increase the pressure on wildlife populations.
- The trade of bushmeat provides one of the few sources of income for hunters, porters and traders, as well as a source of protein for families, in the town of Lodja, which sits close to forests that are home to unique species.
- Activists in Lodja and the DRC are working to save live animals from entering the illicit trade of endangered species and encourage alternative sources of income to the commercial trade of wild meat and animals.

Congo Basin communities left out by ‘fortress conservation’ fight for a way back in (May 16 2023)
- Since the colonization of the Congo Basin by Europeans, many Indigenous communities have been cordoned off from land they once relied on in the name of conservation.
- The contentious “fortress conservation” model remains popular with some governments in Central Africa, but conservation leaders are shifting their opinion, signaling a desire to move toward inclusive and rights-based approaches to protected areas and ecosystems, including in declarations such as the Kigali Call to Action.
- However, Indigenous leaders and conservation experts say action, not just talk, is urgently needed to achieve the goals outlined by the 30×30 initiative, and to make good on promises to address injustices faced by Indigenous communities across the basin.
- On this episode of Mongabay Explores the Congo Basin, Cameroonian lawyer and Goldman Prize winner Samuel Nguiffo, Congolese academic Vedaste Cituli, and Mongabay features writer Ashoka Mukpo detail the troubling history of fortress conservation in Central Africa, the role of paramilitary forces in it, the impacts on local communities, and ways to address the conflicts it has created.

Inaugural Indigenous women’s forum spotlights Congo Basin conservation (May 10 2023)
- This week, leaders from Indigenous women’s organizations, environment and land management groups and philanthropists are meeting in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo, for a forum aimed at strengthening the role of Indigenous women in Congo Basin land management and conservation.
- Organizers hope the forum will result in a fund for Central African Indigenous women supporting biodiversity and climate resilience.
- Research shows that 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found in territory managed by Indigenous peoples, yet Congo Basin countries receive scarce funding for conservation.


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