for National Geographic News
Can central Africa's tropical forests, with their extraordinary wealth of wildlife, live alongside the logger's chainsaw?
It's a question raised by a major new study into logging activity in six countries in the Congo Basin.
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Researchers surveyed a sample of 31 logging concessions in Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Guinea, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The study was done of behalf of the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO). Based in Yokohama, Japan, the ITTO is an intergovernmental body that promotes sustainable use of tropical forest resources.
Over the past 40 years commercial logging in central Africa has spread from accessible coastal areas to the Congo River Basin's interior rain forests. There are now hundreds of logging concessions in the region.
The study confirms environmentalists' concerns that logging can spur more hunting of wild animals and the overharvest of commercially valuable timber. Yet the researchers also say logging companies can help to conserve vulnerable areas of rain forest, provided they operate in an environmentally sustainable way.
Central Africa has the world's second largest area of rain forest after South America's Amazon Basin. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone has 463,000 square miles (1.2 million square kilometers) of tropical forest, an area three times the size of California.
Of central Africa's remaining undisturbed forest, around 40 percent now falls within commercial logging concessions granted by governments to companies and individuals.
While the ITTO study found that loggers target 35 tree species, just two, gaboon mahogany and sapele mahogany, account for over half of all logged timber. Four other species compose another 25 percent.
Operational costs drive this selectivity, according to Robert Nasi, the report's co-author.
"The main reason is distance to port and markets," said Nasi, a forestry scientist with the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research. "When you log in the Central African Republic, you need to transport your timber by road over more than a thousand kilometers [620 miles]."
As a result, Nasi said, companies only log commercially valuable tree species, which fetch prices that cover the cost of harvest and transport.
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