I never set out to make a ‘connection’ with Africa’s forests. Chimpanzees forced me to do it. A week tracking them through the jungles of Semliki National Park in Western Uganda during the mid-1990s proved so resoundingly unsuccessful — the chimps hooting with glee each time they gave us the slip — that I spent much of the time crouching on the forest floor, waiting, watching, listening… and falling under the spell of the trees themselves.
When you pit your wits against elusive forest animals, like unhabituated chimps, you inevitably take root in their world. Sight becomes less important as you strain every auditory nerve to sift the sounds of the forest: frogs, cicadas and red-eyed doves play the background beat; guinea fowl scratch through leaf litter; branches rattle as colobus monkeys perform leaps of faith in the canopy high above your head. The forest also envelops you in smell—rich, loamy odours, drenched in decay. Touch, too, becomes crucial in the twilight world of an African rainforest, from the soft fuzz of moss-covered buttress roots to less tactile nettles and ‘Velcro’ vines.
Stepping foot in the forests of our distant ancestors stirs something primeval deep in our consciousness. The impression they give as impenetrable places of smothering humidity, infested with biting ants, flies and leeches, only serves to highlight how detached most of us have become from our ‘primal home’. It has taken the threat of climate change and mass extinction to bring us closer together. Now we enthuse about Africa’s tropical forests as treasure troves for some 20,000 plant species, 2,000 birds, 600 amphibians and 400 mammals; a precious store for 171 gigatons of carbon; a home for dozens of indigenous groups — from the Mbuti of Congo to the Baka of Cameroon.
Africa’s ‘green heart’ is also the planet’s ‘second lung’, straining alongside the Amazon to breathe out oxygen and suck in carbon dioxide. A green mantle covering 250 million hectares over six countries, the Congo Basin’s jungle holds a quarter of the total carbon stored in the world’s tropical forests—and yet it is a store relentlessly plundered. Cocoa production alone is expanding in Africa at a rate of over 130,000 hectares every year. Add pressures from rubber and palm oil plantations, timber extraction, charcoal production and deforestation for grazing and arable land, and it’s not surprising that Africa’s green heart requires intensive care.
Searching for our distant cousins — the chimpanzee and gorilla — not only supports conservation of these endangered species (through tracking permits etc), but also channels funds into forest protection and carbon management schemes. Local people benefit from employment as guides and lodge staff; clean water flows from forest-clad watersheds into their villages; soil is shielded from erosion.
The crucial role of Africa’s tropical forests is clear. But there are many other types of forest greening the continent, each playing their role in mitigating climate change, protecting biodiversity and supporting local livelihoods. Next time you find yourself unable to see the leopard or chimp for the trees, content yourself instead with the simple act of listening, smelling and connecting with these rich, mysterious, indispensable habitats.