Long-term health of Congo forests threatened by human activity
Unsustainable hunting of forest elephants, gorillas, forest antelopes, and other seed-dispersers could have long-term impacts on the health and resilience of Congo Basin rainforests, warns a study published today in a special issue of the journal Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B.
Conducting a review of more than 160 papers and reports on trends in wildlife populations, hunting, and land use in the Congo Basin, a team of researchers from Oxford University, the University of Queensland, the University of Stirling, and the Wildlife Conservation Society conclude that unless effective management plans are put into place, hunting pressure in the region is likely to increase, with knock-on ecological effects.
The authors warn that "profound ecological changes initiated by hunting ... may even exacerbate the predicted effects of climate change for the region."
While humans have long hunted animals in Africa's tropical forests, in recent decades the proliferation of logging roads, which provide access to remote forest areas, and the emergence of large urban markets for bushmeat have culminated in a sharp rise in commercial hunting in the region. Exploding demand for ivory is worsening the situation, resulting in depletion of a range of seed-dispersing species and wildlife that plays a key role in forest ecology. For example, the loss of elephants from forests in West Africa has triggered a shift toward smaller, faster-growing trees that are less diverse and store less carbon.
"Animal-dispersed tree species, particularly those with large seeds dispersed by large mammals, therefore contribute a high proportion of the overall carbon-storage capacity of tropical forests," the authors write. "Carbon storage may therefore erode over time if tree regeneration is hampered by changes in faunal guilds, including extinction of large specialized disperser species or increases in seed-predating species enjoying ecological release from their predators."
African Elephants photo via Shutterstock.
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