The lush Congo rainforest, home to Virunga National Park, mountain gorillas, volcanoes, and 75 million people across six countries, occupies more ground than Alaska. Deforestation here is tough to measure, but it is a fraction of the forest loss in Brazil, and it occurs chiefly around roads and cities like Kinshasa. Most clearing is done by small-scale farmers growing haricot beans, cassava, plantains, and ground nuts. “A lot of the deforestation is very, very small parcels,” says Galford. “It happens because the land gets exhausted and the farmer moves on.”

A ranger patrols a cleared patch of forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Forest losses are less in the Congo than they have been in the Amazon, but scientists worry that as the human population grows, more rainforest will be cleared. Photo/National Geographic

A ranger patrols a cleared patch of forest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Forest losses are less in the Congo than they have been in the Amazon, but scientists worry that as the human population grows, more rainforest will be cleared. Photo/National Geographic

The Congo is in relatively good shape, but experts worry about its future. An explosion in hunting threatens to produce large, rapid declines in Congo forest function. With 90 percent of the forest now within 50 kilometers of a road, villagers are killing more antelope, monkeys, birds, and porcupines. The bushmeat trade, too, is growing. Removing all those animals from the woods alters the composition of the forest. The reason: 85 percent of Congo plant species need animals to disperse their seeds, and all of those species are now hunted. Even poachers slaughtering elephants for ivory harms the forest understory.

The Congo also is one of the fastest growing regions on Earth – its population is expected to increase fivefold by century’s end. That drives more forest clearing as farmers seek to till fresh ground. Food demand already is rising far faster than crop yields, which are low. In fact, a handful of countries around the Congo, may need 120 percent more farmland by mid-century, says G. David Tilman, a University of Minnesota ecologist. That does not even count the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), home to more than half of the forest.

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