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Equatorial forests of Africa

Guineo-Congolian forest zone

Today the tropical forests of Africa comprise around 20% of the world’s rainforest total with around 2% of this total being represented in East Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) as primarily Afromontane forest (Mayaux et al., 2004). The rainforests of Africa span the equatorial region for approximately 7 degrees north to south. This forest region is dominated by the Congo Basin forest system in Central Africa which harbours approximately 54% of the total area (Mayaux et al., 2013) and is the second largest swathe of rainforest in the world. The Congo Basin comprises a mosaic of flooded forests, bamboo swamps and rivers, spanning 6 countries and covering an area of over 2 million square km. Approximately only 50% of the original forest was recorded to be remaining in 1986 (MacKinnon and MacKinnon, 1986) and since then a deforestation rate of 4.6% of the total remaining forest in 2012 had been recorded between 2000 and 2012 (de Wasseige et al., 2015). The Congo Basin accounts for 60% of Africa's remaining lowland forest, with the last primary intact tracts of forest within the Congo Basin being located in the central and northern parts of the country. These forest tracts mostly comprise a habitat of Congolian lowland and swamp forests, together with a small fraction of montane forests located in the Albertine Rift.

The dominance of the Congo Basin rainforest in Africa (MODIS Data).

Lowland forests of Africa

The lowland forests of Africa are now confined to within a nearly continuous narrow equatorial belt which extends from the Atlantic, at Basse Casamance in Senegal in the west, to its eastern limit in western Uganda. The western extension of this forest belt is interrupted by the Dahomey Gap, a band of Guinean forest-savannah mosaic, around 300 km wide which continues to the coasts of Togo, Benin and Ghana. South of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) the African rainforest extends into Angola, with its southern limit being confined primarily to river valleys. To the east of Semuliki within the Western Rift Valley (Albertine Rift), there are only scattered forest fragments of varying sizes found in Kenya and north-western Tanzania (Hamilton, 1974). The lowland forest fragments in the Western Rift Escarpment form a broken belt of large forests at altitudes of between 500 to 1650 m. Many of these existing East African forests would previously have been connected with each other and with the Ituri Forest (Parque Nationale du Virungas) across the Semliki River in the DRC (Howard, 1991) with climate variation likely being partly responsible for these changes. The remaining remnant forest patches in East Africa are separated by a mosaic of cultivation plots, elephant grass thickets, Pennisetum purpureum, Hyparrhenia grassland and incoming savannah trees (Langdale-Brown et al., 1964).

The current extent of lowland African rainforests (MODIS Data).


de Wasseige, C., Tadoum, M., Eba’a Atyi, R. & Doumenge, C. (eds.), (2015). The forests of the Congo Basin ‐ forests and climate change. Observatoire des Forets d’Afrique centrale of the Commission des Forets D’Afrique centrale (OFAC/COMIFAC) and the Congo Basin Partnership (CBFP), Weyrich.

Hamilton, A. C., (1974). Distribution patterns of forest trees in Uganda and their historical significance. Vegetalio 29, 21‐35.

Howard, P.C., (1991). Nature conservation in Uganda’s Tropical Forest Reserves, International Union for the Conservation of Nature and WorldWide Fund for Nature, Gland and Cambridge.

Langdale‐Brown, I., Osmaston, H.A. & Wilson, J.G., (1964). ‘The vegetation of Uganda and its bearing on land use’, Government of Uganda, Entebbe.

MacKinnon, J. R. & Mackinnon, K., (1986). Review of the protected areas system of the Afrotropical realm, International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Gland.

Mayaux, P., Bartholome, E., Fritz, S. & Belward, A., (2004). A new land‐cover map of Africa for the year 2000. Journal of Biogeography 31, 861‐877.

Mayaux, P., Pekel, J.F., Desclée, B., Donnay, F., Lupi, A., Achard F., Clerici, M., Bodart, C., Brink, A., Nasi, R. & Belward, A., (2013). State and evolution of the African rainforests between 1990 and 2010. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 368, 20120300.

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