14/02/2014 06:45 GMT | Updated 15/04/2014 06:59 BST

If We Want to Save Wildlife, We Must Save the Rainforests It Lives In

Today Prince Charles and David Cameron are hosting world leaders at a global summit to save the world's most endangered species. This is very welcome - the illegal wildlife trade is worth billions of pounds and costs the world many iconic, irreplaceable species each year. But will the glad-handing and photo calls in London yield the root and branch solution required? The early signs suggest the thinking is not sufficiently joined up.

Promises of better trade and law enforcement measures to crack down on poaching are welcome. The Duke of Cambridge's charity United for Wildlife has focused on saving the African elephant from extinction - they won't do so unless they catch the poachers.

But this is just one piece of the puzzle. If we want to save the elephants and a whole host of other species, we must also stop the industrial logging that flattens their habitats and builds the roads that let the poachers in in the first place.


Industrial logging is now the most extensive land use in Central Africa, with a forest area more than twice the size of the UK now under concession in the Congo Basin rainforest, which is second only in size to the Amazon. The first roads are built by loggers to service demand for expensive, exotic timber which is then processed in China and sold in high-end furniture and flooring shops in the UK, US and Europe. We don't need these status products any more than we need tiger skins or ivory, but their high consumer value pushes the industrial logging trade deeper into centuries old virgin rainforests ever year.

Sadly for forests, the first cut is the deepest. Once mined for the luxury hardwoods, logging for less valuable timber continues a cycle of decline that degrades the habitats and pushes out the wildlife, until the trees are gone and the land is converted into a plantation or similar. Despite industry claims that the damage can be managed, scientists concur that these operations are environmentally unsustainable and the arrival of industrial loggers in a forest generally marks the beginning of its end.

This is the pattern of exploitation which has trashed so many forests in Asia and South America and pushed many valuable species like gorillas to the brink of extinction. But in Africa, much can still be saved.

The Congo rainforest covers over one million square kilometres across six countries, most not yet scarred by "big logging". The major exception is Cameroon, where twenty years of industrial operations have left it with more endangered species than any other country in Central Africa. If the the rest of the Congo Basin gets the same treatment, its inhabitants don't stand a chance. Policing a notoriously dirty trade across an area four times the size of the UK in some of the poorest and most lawless countries on earth will be incredibly challenging. Conflicts like those in the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo will accentuate these problems, making them harder to patrol and bringing in armed groups looking for quick sources of cash.

When all this is taken into account, the trade and policing measures agreed today do not fit the nature and scale of the challenge. Many of Africa's most precious species will soon face extinction unless we tackle this problem at its roots, and keep the door to rainforest destruction closed.

It is not too late for the UK Government to step up. It should start by leading European and international donors to invest funding and support into small scale, community based forest management projects and improving local capacity and governance, while explicitly opposing any further industrial scale logging in intact rainforests.

And if serious about leading the global fight to protect wildlife, the UK should push for dialogue on preserving habitats and preventing access by loggers and poachers in the first place. A practical first step is helping persuade the Congolese government from lifting its freeze on new logging concessions, which would trigger a logging bonanza in one of the largest virgin rainforests on earth. In the longer term, leaders must identify how a country like DRC can keep its forests standing, protecting wildlife and developing sustainable livelihoods for its people.

The Congo Basin rainforest is one of the world's last great biodiversity hotspots. We must save it from the march of the loggers whose profits are driven by our soaring, wasteful consumption in the rich world. Let's hope the Duke of Cambridge and world leaders realise this before it is too late, and start joining up the dots to address the problem at the source.