What does the rainforest look like in the Congo

Aisles in the rainforestForest roads in the Congo encourage poaching and deforestation

Arndt Reuning: The Congo Basin is rich in soil resources. But the wood from the tropical jungle in the Congo is also an important raw material. In order to get to the trees, roads and paths have to be built that cut through the forest. An international research team is now reporting in the specialist magazine "Nature Sustainability" that the expansion of the road network in the Congo Basin has increased explosively in the past fifteen years - by sixty percent. The study's first author is Dr. Fritz Kleinschroth from ETH Zurich. I had him describe to me what these new streets and paths look like.

Fritz Kleinschroth: The majority of the roads are unpaved and rather temporary. These are more like forest paths that are created by timber companies in order to be able to selectively transport out the most valuable tree species. There are increasingly more that are being paved, but their share is still negligibly small.

Reuning: What does the strong increase in forest roads mean for the animal species that live in these previously inaccessible forests? For example for the chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants that are there?

Kleinschroth: It is important to me to emphasize that not all roads are created equal in terms of their effects. The presence of a street is not a big problem per se. The problem arises when the roads are used in an uncontrolled manner - and then offer special access for poaching. Unfortunately, this is very common: there is a great demand for game meat in the big cities. And once there is a road, transport becomes much cheaper - or even possible in the first place. In many tropical forests - especially in Africa - we speak of defaunation. This means that a large part of the mammals has really disappeared there because too much was hunted.

Forest roads encourage poaching and clearing along the routes

Reuning: But the hunt itself is not the main cause of this expansion of the roads and paths?

Kleinschroth: No, the main cause is the use of tropical timber. Sometimes only one or two trees are felled per hectare and the roads are needed for this. As for chimpanzees and gorillas, there are various studies that show that these species can get along very well with this selective use. As long as there is action against poaching. The problem arises when such roads - if they are already there - are converted into public roads. For example, there are interests of governments behind it that new areas are made accessible for mining, for example. And once such a road is permanently accessible, there are also problems with deforestation or complete deforestation. In Africa this is often done by small farmers who then follow the roads and burn down the forest along the roads.