The Congo Basin forest
The Congo is the second largest river on Earth 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 in rich tropical rainforests and swamps. Together, these ecosystems make up the bulk of the Central African rainforest, which at 178 million hectares (2005) is the second largest rainforest in the world. A mosaic of forests, savannahs, swamps, rivers and flooded forests, the Congo Basin forest teems with life.
Endangered species, such as forest elephants, chimpanzees, bonobos, and lowland and mountain gorillas inhabit these lush forests. For over 50,000 years, the Congo Basin has provided food, water and shelter to over 75 million people. Nearly 150 distinct ethnic groups live together. Among them, the indigenous peoples, such as the Ba’Aka who are the most illustrious representatives of an ancestral way of life of hunter-gatherers whose survival is intimately linked to the forest.
A forest straddling the country
While nine countries (Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zambia) have part of their territory in the Congo Basin, six countries with extensive forest cover are generally associated with the Congo rainforest: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. (Technically, most of Gabon and parts of the Republic of the Congo lie within the Ogoué River Basin, while much of Cameroon lies within the Sangha River Basin). Of these six countries, the DRC contains the largest area of tropical forest, with 107 million hectares, representing 60 percent of the forest cover of the Central African lowlands.
Globally significant biodiversity
The Congo basin forest includes more than 600 species of trees, 10,000 species of tropical plants, 30% of which are unique to the region, 400 species of mammals, 1,000 species of birds and 700 species of fish. Some of its most famous residents include forest elephants, gorillas, chimpanzees, bongos, okapis (small forest giraffes), leopards, hippos and lions. These species play an important role in shaping the character of their forest habitat. For example, researchers found that forests in Central Africa generally have taller trees but a lower density of small trees than forests in the Amazon or Borneo. The reason for this is that 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 decimated by hunting, forests tend to be shorter and denser with more small trees. It is therefore not surprising that the ancient forests of Central Africa store huge volumes of carbon in their vegetation and tree trunks (39 billion tones, according to a 2012 study), serving as an important buffer against the climate change.
Congo Basin forest climat
Ethnic groups in the Republic of Congo
Threats to the Congo basin rainforest
Central Africa’s rate of deforestation between 1990 and 2010 was the lowest of any major forest region in the world. However, deforestation has tended to increase during the 2010s with the expansion of industrial logging and the large-scale conversion of forests to agricultural land. In contrast, over the past 30 years, small-scale subsistence agriculture, land clearing for charcoal and firewood, urban expansion and mining have been the main drivers of deforestation. The opening of logging roads has given access to smallholders clearing land for agriculture while opening access to poachers.
The bushmeat trade is the main cause of wildlife extinction today. Monkeys and antelopes are easy targets, other protected species such as gorillas, bonobos, pangolins or elephants are also targeted. In less than a decade, 60% of the region’s forest elephant population has disappeared. In many countries, such as Congo Brazzaville, the work of eco-guards has greatly slowed down this phenomenon.
The greatest threats in the future for the Congo basin forest come from industrial plantations, in particular that of palm oil, rubber or sugar.