Hunting Threating Collapse of African Forests
July 23, 2013

Big Game Hunting Driving African Forests To Ecological Collapse

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Scientists from several universities are warning that current hunting trends in Africa could create complete ecological collapse for entire forest systems.

A group from the Universities of Stirling, Oxford, Queensland and the Wildlife Conservation Society said the current rate of hunting of forest elephants, gorillas and other seed-dispersing species is unsustainable and threatens the ability of forest ecosystems to regenerate. They say landscape-wide hunting management plans are needed to help avoid an environmental catastrophe in Central African forests.

"Humans have lived in the forests of Central Africa for thousands of years, until recently practicing subsistence hunting for the needs of their communities," said Kate Abernethy, lead author of the study published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B.

"Over the past few decades, this dynamic has drastically changed. Much of the hunting is now commercially driven, and species that play important ecological functions are being driven to local extinction."

The researchers reviewed over 160 papers and reports on the region's wildlife declines, hunting trends and land-use analyses by humans. They found disturbing trends that threaten the rainforest ecosystems across the board.

Some areas in the forest are being penetrated by roads, while others are being cleared and replaced by single-species plantations of oil palm, rubber trees and biofuel crops.

"Another emerging problem for Central Africa's forests is the migration of large numbers of people into remote forests, around the new plantations and the mining and logging camps," said WCS Conservationist Fiona Maisels, a co-author on the study.

"This population growth creates additional hunting pressures on previously lightly populated areas."

The authors said that good hunting management practices and planning must be included in any climate change strategy or land use plan in Central Africa. They said efficiently managed multiple-use landscapes can preserve the seed-dispersing species while also maintaining game species for hunting needs.

The researchers suggest a top priority should be protecting megafauna like forest elephants and apex predators like leopards in order to maintain intact ecosystems. Without this becoming a top priority, the loss of wildlife could result in forest degradation that will reduce the storage of carbon and the resilience of rainforests to climate change.

"Current climate models suggest that Central African rainforests may be more ecologically resilient to the short-term impacts of climate change than those of West and East Africa, or the Amazon," said co-author Dr. Lauren Coad. "However, severe ecological changes below the forest canopy, driven by hunting, are already occurring. The removal of seed-dispersing megafauna such as elephants and apes could reduce the ability of forests to sequester carbon."

Dr. James Deutsch, Executive Director of WCS's Africa Program, said the clock is ticking on the future of large mammals in Central Africa's Congo Basin Rainforest.

"The people, the forests, and the wildlife need an emergency effort to bring illegal and unsustainable hunting under control," said Deutsch.