The rainforest of the Congo Basin is the second largest on Earth, second only to the Amazon rainforest, that extends from the Atlantic coast in the west to the mountains of the Albertine Rift in the east and spans the equator by nearly 7 degrees north and south. It extends through many countries including Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo.
The basin totals around 3.7 million square kilometres in size and homes some of the largest undisturbed areas of tropical rainforest on the planet as well as large wetlands. The climate is equatorial tropical, with two rainy seasons per year that involve very high rainfalls with high temperatures throughout the year. However, interestingly, the Congo Basin Forest can be divided into six distinct ecological regions, each enjoying their own climate variations. For example, the northern parts have a hot severe dry season, while the rest, particularly the west, has much cooler dry seasons.
The western Atlantic coast is home to a species-rich evergreen forest which receives an annual rainfall exceeding 3 000mm in some areas making it the wettest part of the Congo Basin.
This wet zone extends around 200km in land after which it becomes progressively more dry and flat with a fewer number of species. In the centre, swamps are found which support a large plant and animal endemism.
At the eastern edge, the terrain rises up towards the mountains of the Albertine Rift.
Plants, Wildlife, and Ecology
The biodiversity within the Forests of the Congo Basin is of huge global significance because of the enormous species richness and the number of plant and animal species that exist nowhere else on the planet. In addition, this is only one of two regions on the planet that still has large interconnected tracts of tropical rainforest that is home to over 400 mammal species, more than 1,000 bird species, and likely over 10,000 plant species of which around 3,000 can only be found in the Congo Basin.
In addition, this is the only place in the world where you can find large populations of African Forest Elephant, gorillas, forest buffalo, bongo and okapi. People often refer to Forest elephants as “engineers”, or “gardeners”, of the forest as they continuously transform the landscape to maintain ecological functioning of natural systems.
The forest also plays a momentous role globally acting as the planet’s second “lung”, with the diminishing Amazon being the other. The Congo Basin is a huge “carbon sink” trapping carbon that could otherwise become carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. It is therefore extremely important for the regulation of this greenhouse gas. The forest also regulates regional and local weather patterns, and ensures the cycling of water critical for a large area of Africa.
In addition to the above, the Congo Basin acts as an importance resource base for the livelihoods and well-being of tens of millions of people both in Africa and around the world.
Human occupation in the Forest
Human occupation of the forests is not a modern phenomenon. Evidence of modern humans occupying and using the forests of the Congo basin date back to around 50,000 years and evidence of pygmy culture dates back to around 20,000 years. Although these traditional hunter-gatherers still live within the forest, they have a complex relationship with the farmers where they exchange forest products for starch-rich foods and access to manufactured goods.
Bantu agriculturalists only migrated into this area from the northwest around 5,000 years ago. Their traditional methods of farming involved extensive rotation of forest clearing, cultivation, abandonment, fallow re-forestation, and subsequent re-clearing.
As a result of the low fertility of African rainforest soils and the low productivity of tropical forest in general, the traditional lifestyle of both farmers and hunter-gatherers can only exist in ecological stability at low human population density, with harvesting of natural resources geared toward local consumption.
The reality, however, is that there are over 30 million people living in the Congo Basin with around 150 different ethnic groups. The majority of people living inside the forest are indigenous and still heavily rely on it for natural resources to complement agriculture. In some areas many unemployed urban people are actually returning to the forest to hunt and support their facilities.
Colonialism & industrialisation
Many parts of the forest were historically impenetrable due to significant natural barriers such as waterfalls or thick dense flora until the arrival of European explorers in the middle of the 19th century. The development of road networks constructed by colonials to extract natural resources has had, and continues to have, a significant effect on the patterns of human settlement and thus deforestation. People have established villages along roads and are able to access areas previously inaccessible. In areas with no roads of navigable rivers, large areas of forest remain unspoiled.
In addition to the above, industrial-scale uses (such as logging and oil palm production), immigration and population growth, nontraditional hunting technology, road development, and increasing access to distant markets have resulted in unsustainable extraction of resources and pushed resource management to breaking point. Furthermore, many people are seeking protection in the forest where they are less likely to come across soldiers and rebels from regular conflict. This has put further strain on the previously untouched areas.
Forest Elephants in the Forest
The current distribution of forest elephants within the forests is heavily determined by human activities, even within isolated and apparently well-protected national parks. According to a preliminary assessment conducted in the area, forest elephant abundance was consistently the mirror image of human sign distribution. Humans are forcing Forest elephants into increasingly smaller isolated areas meaning elephants cannot travel long distances, which is necessary for seed dispersal and physical impacts on the forest for the maintenance of biodiversity.
Elephants – and the forest they help to maintain – are under imminent threat if the current trends of illegal killing and range restriction are not halted and reversed.