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7-Jun-2007

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American Association for the Advancement of Science

Changes in logging changes life in Central Africa



Hunter on logging road in Northern Congo.
[Image courtesy of Nadine Laporte, WHRC]

Central Africa is known for its dense forests that are some of the most pristine on the planet. They are home to an amazing array of wildlife and even pygmies. But life in this remote area is changing, and not for the better.

"Everyone thought that logging was expanding into the forests," explains Nadine LaPorte, "but we did not know the extent of it." LaPorte is a biologist who specializes in remote sensing, which means that she uses satellites to see what is happening over a large land area.



Giant mahogany tree along logging road in Northern Congo
[Image courtesy of Nadine Laporte, WHRC]

The 300 satellite images that LaPorte and colleagues studied show that logging has greatly increased in tropical African forests in the last 30 years. The satellite images covered 4 million square kilometers. The research team tracked the progression of logging roads over that time frame and they found that 30 percent of the forests are being used for logging.

The highest logging road densities were in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea, and the most rapidly changing area was in northern Republic of Congo, where the rate of road construction has grown about four times over this time period.

Most of the industrial logging is focused on high-value tree species for export for use in furniture, according to the authors. This is different from logging in the Amazon, LaPorte says. In the Amazon people use the wood themselves, rather than exporting their own natural resources.

It is important to document the growth of the logging roads because it allows researchers to understand the extent to which the environment is being changed. The logging is bad for the environment for several reasons, LaPorte explains.

The logging roads open the forest. The forest is so dense that without the roads only the indigenous people could travel through the area. The roads allow poachers and hunters in and they are killing wildlife including chimpanzees, monkeys, birds and antelopes to sell the food. "This leaves less for the local people to eat," she says. "In America we go to the store to buy protein, but in this part of Africa, they hunt their own protein in the forest."

The loggers only cut down a few species of valuable trees like mahagony and they are not replanting, so "these trees will disappear after a few cycles of logging," LaPorte explains. In addition to disrupting the forest ecology, losing these trees hurts the people who live in the forest who eat caterpillars a source of protein that only live on some of these trees, she says.

About the scientist

The author of this paper, Nadine LaPorte, grew up on a farm in France and loved to play outdoors in the forest. She says she was "a born naturalist." She studied biology in France and learned more about tropical biology and geography. In America she learned about using satellite images to understand what is happening on the ground from the sky.

"I wish I could spend more time in the field collecting information, but now I spend a lot of time in front of the computer analyzing data," she explains.

This research appears in the 8 June 2007 issue of the journal Science.

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