The importance of the Congo Basin for biodiversity and the environment

By: ERIN O'NEILL


posted on: May 29th, 2018

The Congo Basin is one of the most important wild places left on Earth. At 500 million acres, it is the world’s second-largest rainforest, and covers 13% of the African landmass. It is known as a global biodiversity hotspot. This means that thousands of different species all call the Congo Basin home. Many of these species are endemic, meaning that they are unique to the Congo Basin. However, human activity now threatens this important wildlife centre.

THE CONGO BASIN RAINFOREST

The Congo Basin is made up of savannahs, swamps and rainforests. These rainforests in particular hold many valuable species. There are approximately 10,000 species of tropical plants, and 30% are endemic. Some of the most impressive forest animals are the western lowland gorilla and the African forest elephant. These animals attract tourists from all over the world due to their size and rarity. There are also over 400 other species of mammals (warm-blooded animals that give birth to live babies) including the endemic bonobo and okapi, as well as 1000 species of birds.

The Congo Basin has also supported 150 ethnic groups for more than 50,000 years. Today, it is estimated that between 40-75 million people live there. Most tribes, like the Ba’Aka people, follow an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The forest provides them with food, shelter and medicine.

THE ‘LUNGS OF AFRICA’ AND DEFORESTATION

The Congo Basin is sometimes known as our planet’s ‘second lung’, along with the Amazon rainforest in South America. This is because it is a ‘carbon sink’, which means that it traps carbon which could become carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a gas released when we generate electricity that leads to global warming and climate change.

Plants take in carbon mainly through photosynthesis. This is plants’ equivalent to breathing. Animals breathe to take in oxygen, a gas that helps our body survive. When we breathe out we release carbon dioxide, a waste gas for animals. Plants instead take in carbon dioxide which they use for energy and release oxygen, which we need to breathe.

The Congo Basin holds roughly 8% of the world’s forest-based carbon. If the trees were cut down they could release this. Worryingly, this is looking likely due to deforestation. This is when large amounts of trees are cut down. The main reason for logging in the Congo Basin is for African teak and timber which are used for building furniture. Trees are also cut down to make room for mines, where companies seek to extract precious materials like gold, diamonds and petroleum.

At the moment there are no policies to reward companies for not cutting down trees at a large scale. Scientists hope that this will change in order to protect the people and animals that live there, and to prevent carbon release. New codes mean that logging companies have to follow a sustainable, twenty-five-year cycle of logging. Steps forward like these will help to save the forest. However, logging and road development continues to endanger the Congo Basin.

THE CONGO RIVER

The second longest river in Africa after the Nile, the Congo River and its tributaries (smaller rivers leading to a main river) flow through the Congo Basin. Its freshwater supports the Basin’s biodiversity.

The Congo River’s waters support hundreds of species of fish as well as providing water for land animals. So far 700 fish species have been identified, with large sections still unstudied. This is the highest level of biodiversity in any African river system. This is due to the river’s length, meaning it is divided into multiple ecoregions (separate areas with different environmental conditions).

The identified fish species make up one of the world’s highest concentration of endemics. Some of the most famous include the carnivorous (only eats meat) giant tigerfish, and the African blind barb, Central Africa’s only known cave fish.

THE THREAT OF HYDROELECTRIC DAMS

The Congo River is the most powerful river in Africa due to the amount of water that flows through it. This helps to create a high water pressure. This pressure is used to generate hydropower (electricity generated from flowing water). Scientists estimate that the entire Congo Basin accounts for 13% of global hydropower potential and could provide sufficient power for all of sub-Saharan Africa. Currently there are about 40 hydropower plants in the Congo Basin, with new dams being planned.

These dams destroy nearby habitat. This means that many animals that live in or around the river are in danger of becoming extinct.

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