Discover Africa’s last old-growth forests, the earth’s second green lung

While a rainforest once spanned the continent, Africa is now home to just 8% of the world’s ancient woodlands.
Written by Melanie du Toit
10 May 2022

True relics of time, old-growth forests are home to multi-layer canopies, diverse tree structures, and minimal signs of human disturbance. Also known as primeval or virgin forests, their flourishingly stable ecosystems have been allowed to unfold, unhindered by the mark of permanent human activity for more than a century. Today, these densely forested habitats are biodiversity hotspots, where wildlife and flora have been given the freedom to thrive in established and sound ecosystems.

From California’s towering redwoods and British Columbia’s Giant Douglas firs, there are approximately 1.11 billion hectares of primeval forest left on earth, with significant tracts found in South America’s Amazon rainforest. Africa, meanwhile, is home to just 8% of the earth’s old-growth forest, but it plays a vital role in climate control and is lauded as a biodiversity hotspot, protecting countless endemic fauna and flora.

Avenue of the Giants featuring towering Redwoods in California
Avenue of the Giants, California | Source: Eddie Suh

From the sprawling Congo Basin to diminutive Kakagema

The ancient Guineo-Congolian rainforest once spanned much of the central part of the continent. Today, you’ll find remnants of this dense and impenetrable expanse sprawled across a few countries near the equator, acting as the earth’s second green lung. Sadly, the continent has lost most of its intact forest landscape in the last forty years, with the largest threats to primeval forest coming from mankind.

Mountain gorillas are just some of the wildlife that call Africa's old-growth forests home
Mountain gorillas are just some of the wildlife that call Africa’s old-growth forests home | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Kakamega Forest, Kenya 

Although it may be considered small when compared to its counterparts in the Americas, Kakamega Forest’s mere existence whispers of its rich heritage, with wooded inhabitants ranging from Elgon teak, 700-year-old fig trees, and prehistoric ferns, to a dizzying array of more than 60 orchid species – nine of which are only found in Kakamega. 

Great blue turacos add to the forest’s natural choir along with the impressively horned grey-cheeked hornbill, both of whom share the trees with the extremely rare tree pangolin, the blue and De Brazza’s monkeys, and more than 400 species of butterfly. While the forest’s wildlife has yet to be extensively studied, one can only imagine the wealth of natural wonder still waiting to be discovered.

White-bellied pangolin also known as the tree pangolin
Tree pangolin, also known as the white-bellied pangolin | Source: World Land Trust

The Congo rainforest

After the Amazon, the Congo Basin’s rainforests are the second green lung essential to the planet’s survival. Acting as a carbon sink and holding 8% of the globe’s carbon, this region impacts the rainfall patterns of the north Atlantic Ocean and acts as one of the earth’s integral fortifications against runaway climate change. 

Like Kakamega, this region is renowned for its abundant wildlife and incredible biodiversity, with its most fabled residents including the African forest elephant, leopard, gorilla, and chimpanzee. This swathe of intact forest landscape reaches into six countries, from Gabon and the DRC, and, to a lesser extent, neighbouring countries such as Rwanda and Uganda.

African forest elephant, native to the tropical forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin
African forest elephant, native to the tropical forests of West Africa and the Congo Basin

Why are old-growth forests important?

In 2009, the World Resources Institute estimated that only 21% of the earth’s original old growth forests still exist. While some argue that forests are an important hub of natural resources, lending themselves to local industry and economy, scientists have countered that virgin forest is far more valuable in its natural state because of the ecosystem services they provide. 

Due to their pristine environment, ancient woodlands have rich soil composition filled with nutrients, which in turn encourages a thriving plant and wildlife community attributed to the forest’s extended period of stability. Old-growth forests purify water, store genes, maintain soil, act as natural climate controllers, and provide a reservoir for species that can’t grow in younger forests.

Gorilla in Uganda
Mountain gorilla in Uganda | Source: Melanie van Zyl

As seen in the Congo, primeval forests store vital carbon deposits above and below ground, and they produce and store far more carbon than secondary and young forests do. Importantly, when old-growth forests are disturbed, the carbon they hold is released into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases.

Conservation tourism and preserving the world’s second lung 

Despite the undeniably important nature of the earth’s old-growth forests, none are protected by international treaties, but there are international institutions, environmental scientists, conservation organisations and governments working together to protect it. 

Gorilla trekking in Uganda
Gorilla trekking in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park | Source: Melanie van Zyl

Visitors bring in vital revenue that goes towards protecting these biodiverse wilderness areas. The Kakamega Forest National Reserve remains off the beaten tourist track, making it an enthralling destination for nature lovers, who can embark on solo hikes, overnight camping trips, or seek the expertise of a local guide. 

Far busier in contrast to Kakamega, the Congo’s rainforests are eagerly sought out for their mountain gorilla trekking expeditions and volcano hikes which you can embark on in the DRC’s Virunga National Park, Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park. 

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