Conservation in the Congo Rainforest

By Rhett Butler July 24, 2013
By Rhett Butler   |  Last updated 2016-Jan-23

Conservation efforts in Central Africa have been variously challenged by poor infrastructure, weak law enforcement and governance, corruption, and civil strife. The effectiveness of conservation programs ranges from Gabon (strong) to DRC (very weak).

Below is some background on conservation in six Central African rainforest nations.

Lowland rainforest coverProtected areas, 2010
Country(1000 ha)(% of land)Number(1000 ha)% land mass
Eq Guinea216377%1358600020.89%
Central Africa17856244%45039500.311.04%
* Republic of Congo's data on file with OFAC (Observatoire des Forêts d'Afrique Centrale)
is not consistent between the area and percentage of protected areas.

Conservation areas in Central Africa: total rainforest cover and percentage of land mass in protected areas under IUCN categories I-VI
Conservation areas in Central Africa

Democratic Republic of Congo (Kinshasa, Congo DRC)

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has the greatest extent of tropical rainforests in Africa, covering more than 100 million hectares. The forests in the eastern sector are amazingly diverse as one of the few forest areas in Africa to have survived the ice age. About 45 percent of DR Congo is covered by primary forest which provides a refuge for several large mammal species driven to extinction in other African countries. Overall, the country is known to have more than 11,000 species of plants, 450 mammals, 1,150 birds, 300 reptiles, and 200 amphibians.

While DR Congo's protected areas have faced a number of challenges in recent years, the country has a long history of national parks including being the first country in Africa to create a national park (Virunga National Park for mountain gorillas in 1925). Already more than 8 percent of DR Congo is protected in reserves, and the government has announced it aims to expand these conservation areas to 10-15 percent of the country. Traditionally, parks in DR Congo have been well-managed compared to protected areas in surrounding countries. Before the war, parks were largely funded by fees collected from tourists, so there is hope that returning tourists--encouraged by wildlife and the reconstruction of park facilities--will boost conservation in the country. Still, tourists will not return unless they can be assured that the country is once again safe for foreigners. In the immediate future, Congo's parks will need to overcome a number of challenges including corruption, continued incursions by armed militias, weak law enforcement, and lack of funds.

DR Congo's government has lately taken a strong interest in protecting the country's forests. In 2002, the government imposed a ban on the allocation of new logging concessions. While the moratorium was widely ignored, in 2005 the government received a $90-million grant from the World Bank to help it police existing forestry concessions, control new concessions, and develop sustainable management plans for its forests. The government also joined the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, a group of tropical developing nations that sought--and won--money from industrial countries for rainforest protection at the November 2005 climate conference in Montreal.

In coming years the government of DR Congo will be in the unenviable position of having to balance the need to conserve its forests with the needs of its increasingly destitute population--all the while trying to promote stability and economic growth, while servicing its debt. There will be considerable pressure to turn towards forests--at least 60 percent of which are loggable--as a source of income. The economy of DR Congo has long been highly dependent on natural resource extraction--especially timber harvesting and mining--and this is unlikely to change in the near future.

Republic of Congo (Brazzaville)

The Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) is second only to the Democratic Republic of Congo in terms of tropical rainforest coverage among African countries. It is also strikingly diverse for its size--home to 597 species of birds, 166 mammals, 58 amphibians, 149 reptiles, and more than 6,000 species of plants. Nouabalé-Ndoki is one of Congo's best known and most important national parks. Located deep in the Congo Basin rainforest, this part is home to gorillas, chimps, forest elephants, buffalos, and bongos. It, together with LobÈkÈ National Park in Cameroon and Dzanga-Ndoki National Park in the Central African Republic, forms a giant protected area consisting of primary lowland rainforest. In total, almost 16 percent of Congo's land area is under some form of protection.

In September 2006, the Republic of Congo announced plans to create two new protected areas spanning nearly one million hectares (3,800 square miles). The new protected areas are Ougoue-Lekiti National Park, in the western part of the country, and Ntokou-Pikounda, which lies southeast of Odzala Kokoua National Park.

Gabon (pictures of Gabon)

Gabon is home to some of Africa's most biodiverse rainforests. With around 80 percent of the country forested, Gabon has an estimated 8,000-10,000 species of plants (20 percent of which are endemic), over 670 species of birds, and nearly 200 mammals including lowland gorillas, chimpanzees, 10 species of monkeys, forest elephants, and even hippos that surf ocean waves. The Central African country was the ending point of biologist Michael Fay's 455-day Megatransect across the Congo rainforest. Gabon is one of few places on Earth where primary tropical rainforest extends all the way to the beach. Offshore the country has a wealth of marine life including a large population of humpback whales.

In September 2002, at the World Summit in Johannesburg, Gabon announced the establishment of its first national park system consisting of a network of 13 parks that would cover 10 percent of the country's lands mass--10,000 square miles (25,900 sq. kilometers). Previously, Gabon lacked a park system and "protected areas" were sometimes open to logging. Less than 1 percent of Gabon was truly protected under the old system.


Cameroon currently lacks an effective protected-areas system. Eight percent of the country is under some form of protection on paper, but enforcement is weak and timber is illegally harvested from reserves and wildlife is poached. Conserving Cameroon's forests should be a top priority given their high level of biodiversity. The country has some 936 species of birds, 211 mammals, 322 reptiles, 192 amphibians, and 8,260 species of plants. Some of the better known protected areas in Cameroon are Campo Maían National Park, Dja Reserve, Lobeké National Park, Waza National Park, and Korup National Park. All have suffered from illegal incursions in recent years.

Central African Republic

Today about 16.6 percent of the Central African Republic is under some form of protection, though institutional support for protected areas has historically been weak, and hunters and loggers have continued to operate in national parks. The Central African Republic is home to about 3,600 species of plants, 663 birds, 131 mammals, 187 reptiles, and 29 amphibians.

Equatorial Guinea

Equatorial Guinea is located in a region of high animal diversity, including 194 species of mammals, 418 birds, and 91 reptiles (World Resources Institute). The country is also home to 3,250 species of plants. On paper, 16.8 percent of the country is under some form of protection

Key articles about Congo deforestation

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.

Gabon steps in to help protect elephants from ivory poaching at Central African Republic site

(05/18/2013) Gabon has agreed to help battle poaching in protected areas in the Central African Republic following an elephant massacre at a renowned World Heritage site, reports the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

Elephants massacred for ivory in Central African Republic

(05/10/2013) Dozens of elephants have been slaughtered in the Dzanga Bai World Heritage Site in the Central African Republic just days after conservationists warned about an impending threat from the movement of 17 heavily armed poachers. The massacre occurred at a site renowned as 'village of elephants', where tourists and scientists have for decades observed wild elephants congregating at a large clearing to feed on minerals.

62% of all Africa's forest elephants killed in 10 years (warning: graphic images)

(03/04/2013) More than 60 percent of Africa's forest elephants have been killed in the past decade due to the ivory trade, reports a new study published in the online journal PLOS ONE. The study warns that the diminutive elephant species — genetically distinct from the better-known savanna elephant — is rapidly heading toward extinction.

Over 11,000 elephants killed by poachers in a single park [warning: graphic photo]

(02/06/2013) Surveys in Gabon's Minkebe National Park have revealed rare and hard data on the scale of the illegal ivory trade over the last eight years: 11,100 forest elephants have been slaughtered for their tusks in this remote protected area since 2004. In all, poachers have cut down the park's elephant population by two-thirds, decimating what was once believed to be the largest forest elephant population in the world.

Gorilla paradise: new park safeguards 15,000 western lowland gorillas

(01/31/2013) In 2008 the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) announced a jaw-dropping discovery: remote swamp forests in northern Republic of Congo contained a stunning population of 125,000 western lowland gorillas that had somehow gone unnoticed by scientists. At the time the President of WCS, Steven E. Sanderson, called the area the "mother lode of gorillas," and expressed hope that the discovery would lead to a new park. Well, late last year, a park was finalized.

DR Congo gets first validated and verified REDD+ project

(12/20/2012) The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has its first Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) project validated and verified under the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS).

Mountain gorilla population up by over 20 percent in five years

(11/13/2012) A mountain gorilla census in Uganda's Bwindi Impenetrable National Park has a population that continues to rise, hitting 400 animals. The new census in Bwindi means the total population of mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei) has reached 880—up from 720 in 2007—and marking a growth of about 4 percent per year.

'The ivory trade is like drug trafficking' (warning graphic images)

(11/05/2012) For the past five years, Spanish biologist Luis Arranz has been the director of Garamba National Park, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Arranz and a team of nearly 240 people, 140 guards among them, work to protect a vast area of about 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles) of virgin forest, home to a population of more than 2.300 elephants that are facing a new and more powerful enemy. The guards are encountering not only bigger groups of poachers, but with ever more sophisticated weapons. According to Arranz, armed groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army from Uganda are now killing elephants for their ivory.

NASA satellites catch vast deforestation inside Virunga National Park

(10/03/2012) Two satellite images by NASA, one from February 13, 1999 and the other from September 1, 2008 (see below), show that Virunga National Park is under assault from deforestation. Located in the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the park has been assailed by entrenched conflict between rebels and government forces, as well as slash-and-burn farming, the charcoal trade, and a booming human population.

Rarest gorillas lose half their habitat in 20 years

(10/01/2012) Cross River gorillas and eastern gorillas lost more than half their habitat since the early 1990s due to deforestation, logging, and other human activities, finds a comprehensive new assessment across great apes' range in West and Central Africa.

Remarkable new monkey discovered in remote Congo rainforest

(09/12/2012) In a massive, wildlife-rich, and largely unexplored rainforest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), researchers have made an astounding discovery: a new monkey species, known to locals as the 'lesula'. The new primate, which is described in a paper in the open access PLoS ONE journal, was first noticed by scientist and explorer, John Hart, in 2007. John, along with his wife Terese, run the TL2 project, so named for its aim to create a park within three river systems: the Tshuapa, Lomami and the Lualaba (i.e. TL2), a region home to bonobos, okapi, forest elephants, Congo peacock, as well as the newly-described lesula.

Palm oil company in Cameroon drops bid for eco-certification of controversial plantation

(09/05/2012) Herakles Farm, a U.S.-based agricultural developer, will no longer seek eco-certification of its 70,000-hectare oil palm plantation in Cameroon, reports the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The move comes amid criticism from environmental groups that Herakles is converting high conservation value rainforest for the plantation.

Turning gorilla poachers into conservationists in the Congo [warning: graphic photos]

(08/13/2012) Although founded only four years ago, Endangered Species International-Congo, has ambitious plans to protect dwindling Western gorilla populations and aid local people in the Republic of the Congo. The organization, an offshoot of Endangered Species International (ESI), has been spending the last few years studying the bushmeat trade in Pointe-Noire, the country's second largest city, and developing plans for turning hunters into conservationists.

Innovative conservation: bandanas to promote new park in the Congo

(07/16/2012) American artist, Roger Peet—a member of the art cooperative, Justseeds, and known for his print images of vanishing species—is headed off to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to help survey a new protected area, Lomami National Park. With him, he'll be bringing 400 bandanas sporting beautifully-crafted images of the park's endangered fauna. Peet hopes the bandanas, which he'll be handing out freely to locals, will not only create support and awareness for the fledgling park, but also help local people recognize threatened species.

Gabon torches their ivory stock as poachers attack okapi reserve

(07/02/2012) Last week, the west African nation of Gabon committed over 1,200 ivory tusks and carvings to the fire. The act, which was meant to send a strong signal to illegal wildlife poachers across Africa, came only a few days after militia poachers stormed the Okapi Wildlife Reserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The assailants killed 13 okapis and six people, including two wildlife rangers, in retaliation for a crackdown against poaching and mining in the protected area. Poaching has reached epidemic levels in Africa due to increasing bushmeat consumption and a rise in East Asian demand for black-market ivory and rhino horns.

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.

Republic of the Congo expands park to protect fearless chimps

(02/16/2012) The Republic of the Congo has expanded its Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park by 37,295 hectares (144 square miles) to include a dense swamp forest, home to a population of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) that show no fear of humans. Known as the Goualougo Triangle, the swamp forest is also home to forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) and western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). The expansion of the park to include the Goualougo Triangle makes good on a government commitment from 2001.

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.

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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