Major wildfires have been detected in the Congo Basin rainforests with potentially devastating effects on surrounding ecosystems and biodiversity.

Described by experts as ‘unprecedented’ and the largest to have been detected in the Congo Basin, these wildfires are said to affect gorilla and elephant habitats.

More than 15,000 hectares of upland open canopied forests burned in January and February 2016 in Republic of Congo, with the largest cluster found east of Liouesso, located in the north east of the country, according to the University of Maryland Global Land Analysis & Discovery (GLAD) alert system.

“I cannot ascribe a motivation, accidental or otherwise” says Matthew Hansen, remote sensing expert and Geography professor at the University of Maryland in the United States. “But, they (fires) are highly likely to be human-induced in our judgement.”

Active fire detections from MODIS satellite (MODIS NRT C6) near Liouesso, Republic of Congo, Jan. – Feb. 2016. Source: NASA.

Active fire detections from MODIS satellite (MODIS NRT C6) near Liouesso, Republic of Congo, Jan. – Feb. 2016. Source: NASA.

Extreme drought caused by the 2014 – 2016 El Niño event has increased fire risk in Central Africa. Increasing frequency and severity of drought would possibly lead to more fire in the Congo Basin rainforests, scientist say.

“Given that the Republic of Congo contains some of the largest remaining expanses of intact humid tropical forest and associated large mammal habitat, fires such as those observed in the GLAD alerts represent a threat to the maintenance of this ecosystem” write GLAD.

The new GLAD alert system, was developed by the University of Maryland, Google and World Resources Institute. These satellite-based alerts detect tree cover loss in Peru, Republic of Congo and Indonesian Borneo at 30-meter resolution, roughly the size of two basketball courts, and tell where trees are lost in as little as one week.

The GLAD alerts are higher resolution and more frequently updated than any other large-scale forest alerts to date, soon expanding to the rest of the tropics. These alerts could revolutionize the way forests are monitored.

Also read: Even minor forest disturbance can cause great ape population crashes