Research Press Release

Ecology: Understanding the make-up of central Africa’s forests


April 22, 2021

A map of the make-up of central Africa’s forests highlights the vulnerability of key regions in response to potential future climate and anthropogenic changes. The map, revealed in this week’s Nature, provides a benchmark for scientists and policymakers drawing up strategies to protect this vital resource.

Central Africa is home to the world’s second largest rainforest, but as the human population grows and the world warms, these African forests are increasingly under threat. To protect and manage the forests, an understanding of their current composition is needed.

Using a dataset of 6 million trees from more than 180,000 field plots, spread over the 5 main forested countries in central Africa (Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and Democratic Republic of the Congo), Maxime Réjou-Méchain, Sylvie Gourlet-Fleury and colleagues produced a continuous map of the composition of central African forests. Ten main types of forest were identified, and modelling suggests that areas in the northern and southern forest margins, the Atlantic forests and most forests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are highly vulnerable to both climate and anthropogenic threats, which are expected to increase sharply by 2085.

The authors suggest that these data can be used to help guide the development of plans that preserve the full range of the evolutionary and functional potential of the forests. Protected areas, for example, cover almost 15% of the forest domain in central Africa, but they do not equally cover the 10 identified forest types, and should therefore be extended to become more representative.

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