The Congo Rainforest

By Rhett A. Butler
August 1, 2020


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.

 
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
2020
(million hectares)
Primary forest extent
Share of land mass
(million hectares)
Primary forest loss
2002-2019
Tree cover extent
2020
(million hectares)
Tree cover change
2002-2019
Cameroon1667402335%-3.3%255109134.2%
CAR56872139%-2.2%212261041.7%
DR Congo9975197044%-4.6%1879517847.1%
Equatorial Guinea218736378%-2.6%25382724.3%
Gabon2243010687%-1.1%244087981.7%
Congo2082948161%-1.5%260414502.9%
TOTAL16756015642%-3.5%2876773215.6%

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
CountryBirdsAmphibiansMammalsReptilesFishVascular
plants
D.R. Congo1087244430294148011007
Cameroon87421833528310428260
Gabon606961821387746651
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  

RECENT CONGO RAINFOREST NEWS

Female putty-nosed monkeys get their males to run defense against predators (29 Apr 2021 09:05:16 +0000)
- A new study found that female putty-nosed monkeys use alarm calls to recruit males to be their “hired guns” when a predator is detected, only stopping their vocalizations once males have been enlisted to ward off the threat.
- Recruited males will vocalize their participation with a “pyow” call, which may aid their reproductive chances in the future, according to the study.
- The researchers also observed that male putty-nosed monkeys emitted a newly described “kek” call when responding to a simulation of a leopard moving along the forest floor.
- The researchers say that this study, as well as related studies, can aid conservation efforts for the putty-nosed monkey, a near-threatened species, and broaden our understanding of communicative and cognitive capacities of non-human primate species.

Global forest loss increased in 2020 (31 Mar 2021 04:01:10 +0000)
- The planet lost an area of tree cover larger than the United Kingdom in 2020, including more than 4.2 million hectares of primary tropical forests, according to data released today by the University of Maryland.
- Tree cover loss rose in both the tropics and temperate regions, but the rate of increase in loss was greatest in primary tropical forests, led by rising deforestation and incidence of fire in the Amazon, Earth’s largest rainforest.
- The data, which is now available on World Resource Institute’s Global Forest Watch, indicate that forest loss remained persistently high in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, but “does not show obvious, systemic shifts in forest loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to WRI.
- Destruction of primary tropical forests, the world’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, released 2.64 billion tons of carbon, an amount equivalent to the annual emissions of 570 million cars.

Unrelated adoptions by bonobos may point to altruistic traits, study says (23 Mar 2021 20:23:59 +0000)
- Two wild bonobos in the Luo Scientific Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were observed to adopt infants from different social groups, according to a new study.
- These are said to be the first recorded cases of great apes adopting unrelated individuals.
- While the researchers do not know why these bonobos chose to adopt unrelated infants, they speculate that it could be to strengthen current and future alliances within their own groups as well as with other social groups.

We’re killing those tropical trees we’re counting on to absorb carbon dioxide (24 Feb 2021 22:52:26 +0000)
- A pair of recent studies show that rising temperatures are shortening the lives of trees in tropical forests and reducing their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
- This phenomenon is already being observed in parts of the Amazon, where the temperature has already crossed a critical threshold of 25°C (77°F); by 2050, the same may happen in the Congo Basin, the world’s second-biggest tropical rainforest.
- Forests play a major role in fighting global warming, but the authors of the recent studies say we shouldn’t be overly reliant on them as a solution, given their diminished capacity to absorb carbon dioxide.
- Instead, they say that cutting emissions is more urgent than ever.

Podcast: What are the tropical forest storylines to watch in 2021? (13 Jan 2021 22:45:08 +0000)
- Happy new year to all of our faithful Mongabay Newscast listeners! For our first episode of the year, we take stock of how the world’s rainforests fared in 2020 and look ahead to the major stories to watch in 2021.
- We’re joined by Mongabay founder and CEO Rhett Butler, who discusses the impacts of the Covid pandemic on tropical forest conservation efforts, the most important issues likely to impact rainforests in 2021, and why he remains hopeful despite setbacks in recent years.
- We also speak with Joe Eisen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation UK, who helps us dig deeper into the major issues and events that will affect Africa’s rainforests in the coming year.

Rainforests: 11 things to watch in 2021 (01 Jan 2021 12:00:44 +0000)
- 2020 was a rough year for tropical rainforest conservation efforts. So what’s in store for 2021?
- Mongabay Founder Rhett A. Butler reviews some of 11 key things to watch in the world of rainforests in 2021.
- These include: the post COVID recovery; the transition of power in the U.S.; deforestation in Indonesia; deforestation in Brazil; the effects of the La Niña climate pattern; ongoing destabilization of tropical forests; government to government carbon deals; data that will allow better assessment of the impact of COVID on tropical forests; companies incorporating forest-risk into decision-making; ongoing violence against environmental defenders; and whether international policy meetings can get back on track.

 



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