Road expansion, deforestation shrinking wildlife in Congo Basin: Study

Accelerating deforestation could also leak carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to the greenhouse effect

By DTE Staff
Published: Tuesday 25 June 2019

Rapid expansion of roads in forest areas is threatening wildlife populations, particularly in the Congo Basin, according to a study.

Since 2003, the total length of roads has increased by nearly 100,000 kilometres — from 144,000 to 231,000 kilometres overall in the world’s second-largest rainforest, after Amazon, showed the study published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

As a result, forest destruction has increased by four times in the Congo basin.

“New roads are opening a Pandora’s box of activities such as illegal deforestation, mining, poaching and land speculation,” said Bill Laurance, a professor at James Cook University in Australia.

Many protected areas in the Congo Basin are used for selective logging of timber. To access and transport timber, extensive road networks are required, the study showed. While some logging roads are abandoned, many are used by slash-and-burn farmers and poachers.

“As a result, the global population of forest elephants has collapsed by two-thirds over the past decade. Elephants, gorillas and chimps hardly have anywhere to hide from poachers now,” Laurance added.

A growing influx of aggressive foreign developers, combined with corruption and rapid population growth is causing destructive development in the area.

Despite this, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC — the largest nation in the Congo Basin — has plans to sharply increase logging, which could be of grave concern. In 2018, it leased 1.6 million acres of pristine rainforest to Chinese logging companies, Laurance said.  

The move can lead to steep declines in wildlife populations in the area, the study noted.

India has witnessed a smiliar scenario. 

An ever-increasing infrastructure network into protected areas such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries killed 161 wild animals in road or train accidents in 2018, according to State of India's Environment 2019 in Figures report.

In 2018, a lion died in a road accident, while three died in rail accidents. The same year, 70 leopards lost their lives in road accidents and 11 spotted deer died in road mishaps.

However, concerned about the situation, the central government has asked road construction authorities to avoid building highways in protected areas.

Besides affecting the wildlife, accelerating deforestation could also be unleashing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to another study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Researchers at Florida State University, who investigated 19 sites in eastern DRC, showed that unearthing of the years old tropical soil is increasing the leaking of organic carbon by rainfall — impacting soil fertility and aquatic and coastal ecosystems.

This also means carbon that was safely sequestered in the Earth for years could now be re-entering the modern carbon cycle — endangering local ecosystems and increasing the greenhouse effect.

However, road decommissioning — shutting down — after logging could be the key to improve forest ecosystems, biodiversity and carbon storage, the studies suggested.

Effective measures include:

  • Combination of physical barriers,
  • Removal of stream crossings,
  • Road surface decompaction 
  • Active forest restoration
  • Restricting unauthorised vehicle access to forest areas.

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