The Congo rainforest is the world’s second largest rainforest, behind the Amazon, covering a vast area across Central Africa through Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo and accounting for 18% of the world‘s remaining rainforests. Two thirds of the rainforest is found in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where 57% of the countries land area is made up of forest. The rainforest has an enormous biodiversity significance and is also important for the livelihoods of millions of people across Central Africa, with around two-thirds of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s population relying on the rainforest for food, shelter and medicine.
A rising population in the DRC coupled with widespread poverty and displacement from war has forced many Congolese to become dependent on the meat of wild animals, typically referred to as bush meat. Animals are caught using snares or by being shot and are then used either as food or as a means of acquiring an income by selling bush meat in urban centres like in the nations capital, Kinshasa. Logging and mining companies who build roads through the rainforest and clear large areas of forest has made previously unreachable areas of jungle accessible to hunters. This has contributed to a sharp decline in populations of many animals including primates like the bonobo and gorilla.
Despite having far lower deforestation rates than the Amazon or the Indonesian rainforest, the Congo rainforest is becoming an increasingly fragile ecosystem due to an increase in commercial logging, clearance of land for agriculture, road building and civil strife in the DRC which has led to a depletion of forest resources and an increase in the bushmeat trade. In 2004, one year after the Second Congo War ended, the government announced plans to expand the logging industry in order to help create a strong economy in the country whilst creating thousands of jobs. According to Greenpeace, logging titles across the Congo rainforest cover around 50 million hectares, with 20 million hectares in the DRC alone. Figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that Central Africa lost 91,000 kilometres squared of rainforest due to deforestation between 1990-2000. It is currently estimated that 30% of the Congo rainforest will have disappeared by 2030, unless action is taken to lower deforestation rates and to reduce logging concessions.
The forest is home to a wealth of biodiversity with over 10,000 species of plant, 30% of which are found only in the region, 400 species of mammal, 700 species of fish and 1,000 species of bird, according to WWF. Some of the species found in the Congo rainforest include the pygmy chimpanzee, the forest elephant, gorillas, the Congo peacock, the white rhino, the okapi and the ground pangolin. Perhaps one of the most unique species is the okaipi, a close relative of the giraffe with striped marking on their legs resembling the stripes of a zebra. There are an estimated 10,000-20,000 okaipis remaining in the wild in the DRC. They live in mountainous regions with altitudes between 500-1000 metres and in swamp forests below 500 meters.
The Congo rainforest has been inhabited by people for 50,000 years and is home to over 150 ethnic groups, some of whom still survive by hunting and gathering in the rich rainforest. Among these ethnic groups there are so-called pygmy people most notably the Mbuti, the Aka, the Baka, the Twa and the Efe. When establishing a settlement, these peoples clear the undergrowth and small trees but leave the canopy intact, so that it protects them from extreme weather including intensive heat and heavy downpours. When they leave a settlement, the forest can quickly regenerate to become semi-primary forest. Despite their history of sustainable living and respect for the environment and animals around them, forest peoples are being threatened by external factors such as logging operations and their food sources are vanishing due to deforestation and poaching.
With such immense ecological significance and with the rainforest being home to thousands of species, it is of paramount importance to preserve the unique Congo rainforest for the people of Central Africa and the animals relying on the forest for food and shelter. In the Republic of Congo, 16% of the land area is currently under some form of government protection and species such as the western lowland gorilla are currently thriving with a population of 125,000. In 2008, the Congolese President signed a deal with the EU to reduce the negative effects of deforestation which helped add to the countries commitment to manage forests sustainably. In the DRC, more than 8% of the country is protected, with plans to expand this to 10-15% in the coming years. In Gabon, a country where 80% of the land area is forested, primary forests extend right across the country to the coastline. In Cameroon, 8% of the country is currently under protection however weak law enforcement and lack of manpower makes protecting the rainforest a difficult task for the Cameroonian government. In Equatorial Guinea, 16.8% of the country is under protection and in the Central African Republic 16.6% of the country is protected.