Science - June 24, 2004

Ecological atlas shows African hole in ‘lungs of the earth’

Conservationists and logging companies should take the time to look at the new ecological atlas of West Africa, according to its compilers. Chair of tropical forest ecology, Professor Frans Bongers, and Dr Lourens Poorter collaborated with a number of organisations to produce an atlas that gives an impression not only of the destruction of the African rainforest, but also the botanical jewels that are still left in a few places.

The atlas is the result of a study of herbarium material and fieldwork carried out in the rainforest of West Africa. It also makes use of previous forest surveys carried out by a number of organisations including Herbarium Vadense and Stichting Tropenbos, both in Wageningen. The project, Ecosyn, was financed by the European Union.

The West African forest has been called one of the last biodiversity hotspots in the world. Bongers, Poorter and their African colleagues have not only described threatened plant and tree species. The atlas also indicates the speed with which deforestation is taking place in countries like Ivory Coast, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Each year an area of forest the size of Switzerland disappears in the African continent, and much of the logging activity is in West Africa. The Ecosyn researchers show that most of the damage in Ivory Coast and Sierra Leone is the result of the use of chainsaws. In these countries there is almost no forest left, and this is where there is a big hole in the ‘lungs of the earth’.

The forests of Liberia are to a large extent still intact, and are home to a wide range of species. Nevertheless these forests are also threatened by large-scale commercial logging. The atlas indicates that at present the threatened species in mountainous areas are relatively safe, but these hotspots mostly do not fall within the boundaries of nature reserves. The authors describe a total of 2,800 tree and plant species (350 in detail), indicating those that are threatened and endemic. The atlas also shows the distribution of the different species in West Africa, and the zones with relatively high biodiversity, the ‘hotspots’.

Hugo Bouter