One of the most biodiverse countries in West Africa, Gabon’s forests cover around 85% of the country’s territory and are home to more than 3000 different species of vegetation and at least 190 species of mammals, including forest elephants and hippopotamuses. As of 2015 the country had 23.6m ha of forests, according to a recent study by the country’s space agency, the Gabonese Agency for Spacial Studies and Observation (Agence Gabonaise d’Etudes et d’Observation Spatiales AGEOS). In 2002, 13 national parks were created in an attempt to protect these rainforests and boost new revenue streams by developing ecotourism and entering the global carbon trade market.
Gabon holds Africa’s largest forest elephant population, estimated at around 40,000-45,000 out of the 100,000 in Central Africa. As poaching has depleted elephant populations elsewhere, Gabon has been targeted by poachers in recent years. Around 11,000 elephants were slaughtered for their tusks between 2002 and 2012. Although the situation has improved significantly in the past few years, this problem persists, especially in Minkébé national park, which over the years has become a key transit route for poached ivory.
Protection Of Parks
Authorities have stepped up their efforts to combat poaching and illegal logging. Created in 2007, the National Agency for National Parks (Agence Nationale des Parcs Nationaux, ANPN) is the authority in charge of overseeing the national park system and protecting their resources and wildlife. The agency receives 50% of its funds from the Gabonese state and the rest comes from international donors.
Over the years the ANPN has expanded its patrol force to reach 600 “eco-guards” in 2016. However, the agency estimates that this number needs to be doubled to enable it to control the vast protected areas. In its endeavour, the agency is backed by satellite monitoring set up by AGEOS, with support from NASA in the US.
In a bid to strengthen legislation against illegal logging and poaching, authorities are working on a new forestry code, which aims to expand the government’s capacity for sustainable management of the country’s forests (see Agriculture & Forestry chapter).
As a result of these efforts, most protected parks have seen a decline in poaching. For example, in Wonga Wongue National Park, the forest elephant population, which was declining by more than 10% a year, is now increasing by more than 5% annually.
Over the past two years, authorities have seen a growing use of military-grade weapons among poachers who are now operating in gangs of 30-50 people. To support the ANPN in the fight against poaching, the UK Army sent a training team to the Minkébé region in April 2015 to provide training for local park rangers and trackers. The anti-poaching programme, carried out alongside a US military team, included sharing operational experience, surveillance and analysis, and the collection and use of criminal intelligence to support prosecution of the gangs.
Forest Data Mission
In addition to contributing to the preservation of biodiversity, Gabon’s rainforests are crucial for carbon capture. In 2015 the European Space Agency, in partnership with the French National Aerospace Research Centre, the German Aerospace Centre, NASA and AGEOS, launched AfriSAR, a research mission that will collect measurements on Gabon’s forest biomass in an effort to better gauge the role of forests in the earth’s carbon cycle.
The mission will improve estimates of how much carbon is being taken up from the atmosphere and where it is stored. More specifically, AfriSAR focuses on collecting data on plant mass, the distribution of trees, shrubs and ground cover, and the diversity of plant and animal species across the country’s rainforests, wetlands, mangrove forests and savannahs. The first part of the research campaign was conducted in July 2015, with the second phase taking place in February 2016.
Ultimately, the forest data gathered in Gabon will help policymakers balance the global carbon budget.