Treehuggers of the Congo

May 6, 2010

WCS conducts the first landscape-wide survey of how land-use affects chimpanzees, gorillas, and forest elephants.

Forest elephants love trees. Chimpanzees and gorillas love trees. Humans love trees.

Sometimes though, humans love trees and their products too much, to the detriment of forest elephants, chimpanzees, and western lowland gorillas. In fact, logging threatens much of the Congo Basin, the Earth’s last remaining tropical wilderness.

To determine what might make all of these tree-loving parties happy, WCS researchers completed the first-ever, landscape-wide evaluation of conservation approaches to logging. The survey reveals that within the Ndoki-Likouala Landscape, logging concessions and wildlife can occasionally exist in relative harmony.

But such circumstances, the study cautions, occur only when certain land-use regulations are strictly enforced.

“Protected areas free of human disturbance, logging, or roads remain key to the protection of great apes and elephants,” said WCS conservationist Emma Stokes, the study’s lead author. “Landscape conservation should focus on protected areas surrounded by other land-use types that also have wildlife management in place.”

Through elephant dung and great ape nests, the conservationists assessed wildlife populations in the northern Republic of Congo, examining the different types of land-use in the area. The region includes Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, a community-managed reserve, and various logging concessions. The study showed that core protected areas—coupled with strong anti-poaching efforts—are vital to keeping forest elephants, western lowland gorillas, and chimpanzees in good numbers.

Commercial logging is prevalent throughout much of the Congo Basin, which includes the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea. Only 12 percent of the basin’s native forests are protected. Meanwhile, loggers have attained permissions to cut down trees in about 30 percent of these rich forests. The details in how the logging companies use the land will make huge differences for its wildlife.

Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, which WCS helped establish in 1993, has some of the highest recorded chimpanzee densities in central Africa. Chimps and forest elephants are very sensitive to human disturbance, making the isolation of the park vital to their well-being.

“Conservation on this scale is difficult and expensive, but absolutely necessary if we hope to save viable populations of elephants and great apes," says James Deutsch, director of WCS's Africa programs. "At the same time, the government’s capacity to follow up and take legal action against poachers needs to be strengthened and is a key to maintaining the protection of the forests and their wildlife.”

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