Science - January 26, 2006

Protection for the world’s second lung

After the Amazon, the African rainforest is the world’s second ‘lung’. But it is disappearing quickly. Hopes are now set on Gabon, a country that still has a vast expanse of protected virgin rainforest and is teeming with wildlife. Wageningen scientists assess the rich biodiversity, but also foresee new threats like Asian logging companies.

‘A little less talking, a little more action’ is what the president of Gabon must have been thinking when he recently established thirteen new national parks all at once. They cover an area of more than 10,000 square miles. Never before have we seen such rapid action in the world of nature conservation. ‘It is a real feat,’ says professor in biosystematics Marc Sosef, who has been active in Gabon since the eighties. ‘We generally spend long years discussing and writing policy documents before even one new park is installed. Gabon proves that it can be done differently.’
Sosef and his group have been playing an important role in assessing plant biodiversity in Gabon. They set up the National Herbarium in the capital Libreville, trained local scientists, and studied vast tracks of lowland rainforest, mapping a wealth of plants, many of which are endemic. This information is valuable now for developing management plans for the national parks.
‘We developed a unique database of 65,000 plants collected in Gabon, together with French, Belgian and American scientists. The data was used to pinpoint vital areas for protection and outline the new parks. Our continuing surveys are now contributing to the development of more detailed management plans.’
In countries like Ivory Coast and Ghana, the rainforest is almost completely destroyed,’ sighs Sosef. The professor has made several expeditions into the Gabon rainforest. ‘It is poorly accessible; we have to follow deserted tracks and cross bridges that could collapse at any moment. There are few good maps of the area, so we can stumble suddenly upon rivers, dangerous ravines, dense forests or swamps. Not a very practical way to travel, but it does make the work adventurous and interesting.’
The professor thinks there is still a lot to discover in Gabon. He estimates that only forty percent of the plant diversity is described in the current Flora of Gabon. At the same time, he foresees new dangers for the forest. ‘Traditionally very selective logging is practised in Gabon. Only one or two trees are cut per hectare, so this has a small impact on the forest. But recently I have seen Chinese and Malaysian logging companies in Gabon that are used to clear-cut logging in Asia.’
At the moment these companies have limited access to the Gabon rainforest. But this may change. Gabon is a relatively rich African country because of its oil reserves and manganese mines. But Gabon´s offshore oil wells are projected to dry up in about twenty years. ‘To maintain the high living standard, the country may want to let in more Asian logging companies.’
Developing ecotourism is a better path to choose, believes Sosef.. ‘As Gabon is fairly expensive for African standards, I don´t expect very large numbers of tourists to come. So ecotourism will not harm the forest and wildlife.’ But the new parks will attract well-off tourists, generating extra income.
One of the parks Sosef finds particularly valuable is the Birougou park in the south of the country. ‘We discovered that this place was an ice age refugia. During the last ice age, the African rainforest shrunk considerably, with a last stronghold located in the Birougou mountains. That´s why we can encounter a great variety of trees and plants here, like many species of begonia, orchids, and tree ferns, some of which have medicinal value.’
For the park managers it is a challenge to carefully plan the use of the parks and to establish, for example, no-go-areas to protect wildlife. Sosef values in particular the Lopé reserve in Central Gabon, the turtle reserve of Mayumba along the coast, and the Bateke Plateau in the east. ‘The Bateke Plateau is rich in savannah plants, elephants and other wildlife. The Plateau extends into Congo where the environment is not protected, so the protection in Gabon is a good initiative.’
In the coming years, Sosef wants to carry out more field work and expand and digitise the plant database of Gabon. The professor welcomes MSc and PhD students to carry out this work. ‘Be aware that you must at least speak French, as this is the official language in Gabon.’ It is also just as important to understand the language of nature, for example the call of elephants, gorillas or running buffalos, so you do not get trampled before you begin your work.

Hugo Bouter

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