The Color of Money
The Congo Basin is one of the world’s richest areas in terms of biodiversity. It possesses the second largest expanse of old growth tropical forest on the planet and is home to significant numbers of insects, reptiles, mammals and plant species.
Increasingly, studies from a variety of disciplines indicate these forests, and in particular the trees, have value important to all of us and future generations to come. The continuous tree stands provide us with the air we breathe, food items such as seeds and fruits we consume, shelter from the environment and even medicines that heal us.
Indeed, for millennia we have been living off tropical forests’ natural capital. Such reliance continues at present with many countries in the Congo Basin opening their borders to timber extraction firms.
Today, the timber industry is the most economically influential enterprise in northern Republic of Congo, and companies exploit up to 60 species of the roughly 375 species found to exist in the lowland habitats. Within this suite of marketable trees, species vary in their physical properties such as color. In addition, some species are considered soft, yet strong in relation to their weight while others are incredibly heavy.
The pristine forests of the Goualougo Triangle, where I study chimpanzees and gorillas with my wife and partner Crickette Sanz, Ph.D., are protected within the boundaries of Nouabale-Ndoki National Park. But nearby areas that provide habitat for apes and other wild species are increasingly being logged.
This change to the landscape has offered the opportunity to address one of the greatest conservation challenges in the region: assessing the short-and long-term impacts of repeated timber harvesting on wildlife and the resources they require for survival. Our ongoing studies on the impact of logging indicate few of the trees removed at present are used by gorillas or chimpanzees as food or for nesting. However, as the market for commercial timber species expands in the region and forests are subjected to repeated harvesting cycles, increasing levels of pressure on ape food resources will be inevitable.
For decades timber exploitation has been well in excess of the natural tree replacement, and companies will soon need to expand the suite of trees they exploit. Fortunately, an increasing number of timber companies have come to the realization that biodiversity conservation is essential to meeting the demands of an emerging consumer class concerned with sound environmental practices.
In an ideal world, the region’s chimpanzees and gorillas wouldn’t have to worry about logging. As it is, though, sustainable logging practices may be the best way to keep them in their natural habitat. Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), which is an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization established to promote responsible management of the world’s forests, is internationally recognized as the gold standard for timber certification.
Our efforts to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the impacts of FSC-certified logging on apes will help avoid negative impacts associated with future logging and convince governments of the need to promote timber certification. We’ll keep working to understand more—and conserve these amazing animals.
David Morgan, Ph.D., is a research fellow in Lincoln Park Zoo's Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes and the co-director of the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.
VIDEO: Trek to the Goualougo Triangle
Reaching the Republic of Congo's remote Goualougo Triangle Ape Project field site—home to wild gorillas and chimpanzees—is no walk in the park. To get there on their recent expedition, Lincoln Park Zoo researchers required a succession of aircraft, Land Rovers, an automobile river ferry, dugout canoes and—for the final, arduous 6-hour trek—their own two tired feet. Experience their journey to base camp in this travelogue video.