FSC-certified tropical forests help wildlife thrive

Posted on April, 10 2024

Large, threatened mammals such as great apes and forest elephants and other wildlife are better conserved in FSC-certified forests compared to non-certified.
A new study reveals compelling evidence that forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in Gabon and the Republic of Congo harbour a higher abundance of larger mammals and critically endangered species such as gorillas and elephants compared to non-FSC certified forests. The research – led by Utrecht University with support from WWF and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and published in Nature  underscores the effectiveness of measures implemented in FSC-certified forest concessions to safeguard wildlife.  

Key findings: FSC-certified forests a haven for larger mammals 

By meticulously documenting individual animal counts and strategically positioning camera traps, the research affirms that certified concessions notably harbour a bigger population of large and threatened mammals – 2.7 times more for mammals over 100 kg, such as gorillas and forests elephants, and 2.5 times more for mammals from 30-100 kg such as leopards and chimpanzees – when compared to non-FSC-certified forests concessions.

The number of smaller mammals observed was similar between FSC- and non-FSC concessions, painting a picture of less biodiversity in the latter forests. The effects were similar in both Gabon and the Republic of Congo.

In addition, the encounter rates observed of large mammals in FSC-certified forests were comparable to published data from recently monitored protected areas in the Congo Basin region. 

The new study is the first to compare so many different forest areas at the same time, using 474 camera traps across 14 logging concessions – seven FSC-certified and seven non-FSC certified. It aligns with the findings of a previous bio-acoustics research in the Peruvian Amazon, which found that it is possible to have production forestry coincide with biodiversity conservation if done in the right way and in the right places.  

“It was a large and ambitious project that took five years and involved hundreds of local employees”, says Utrecht University’s Joeri Zwerts, who led the study. “It was hard work, but the knowledge we gained will make an important contribution to the protection of animals in tropical forests.”

Clear link between hunting and biodiversity loss  

The research emphasizes the pivotal role of hunting in biodiversity loss, highlighting the reduced number of hunting signs and increased wildlife observations in FSC-certified concessions. Certified forestry companies’ proactive measures, such as blocking old logging roads, establishing checkpoints, and supporting alternative protein sources for local populations, have significantly curbed illegal hunting. 

Beyond wildlife conservation, the study highlights the broader positive impact of FSC certification. The conservation of large mammals positively influences seed dispersal, nutrient cycling, and forest carbon storage. Previous research, published in Nature Geoscience, has shown that tropical forests would potentially store 7% less carbon without the presence of elephants.

“These results are inspiring and an indication that FSC continues to be an effective tool in tropical forests, and that its standards translate into tangible impacts”, said Fran Price, Leader, WWF Forest Practice. “Solutions that benefit both people and nature do exist, and responsible forest management certification is one of those vital solutions.” 

Responsible forest management: an important pillar for biodiversity conservation 

“FSC-certified forest concessions in the Congo Basin are often in large, remote areas which are harvested under Reduced-Impact Logging principles in a decades-long rotational pattern, meaning that large mammals are able to roam and avoid production areas”, said Jaap Van Der Waarde, WWF-Cameroon, who is a co-author of the paper.

“This study’s findings provide convincing data that sustainable forestry practices can contribute to the conservation of wildlife whilst also supporting sustainable community and economic development”, said Tim Cronin, Forests Forward Global Lead, WWF. “To confirm that wildlife conservation need not come at the expense of economic development brings real hope for the future of the Congo Basin.”

As logging concessions account for more than half of the remaining forest areas in the two countries studied (61% in the Republic of Congo and 67% in Gabon), these positive results from FSC-certified concessions are of great importance for the conservation of biodiversity in the region. 

Making the right choices

WWF urges companies to pursue responsible forest management certified under FSC and invest more in research that can help inform the continual improvement of such mechanisms. 

Through its Forests Forward programme, WWF works with several companies in the Congo Basin on improving forest management.

One of those companies is Interholco, which manages a 1.16 million-hectare FSC-certified forestry concession in the Republic of Congo, bordering the Odzala-Kokoua National Park. The company has also been granted FSC Ecosystem Services certification for their role in conserving biodiversity.

Tom Van Loon, Head of Sustainability, Interholco, said: “We are very glad about the results of the research, a confirmation that our continuous efforts for sustainable forest and wildlife management contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity in the Congo Basin. Support and cooperation with our partners such as WWF bear fruit for the protection of large landscape level forests, crucially important for Indigenous Peoples, to protect wildlife and to mitigate climate change.”

Consumer choice also plays an important role. As the paper’s lead author, Joeri Zwerts, said: “We, as consumers, affect ecosystems on the other side of the world and we need to find ways to reduce our negative impact. Our research contributes to the knowledge that can help people to make the right choices.”
FSC-certified forest concession in the Republic of Congo.
© Interholco
Camera trap image of a chimpanzee, Gabon
© Joeri Zwerts, University of Utrecht
Elephant caught in a camera trap image as part of a study in the Congo Basin to study the impacts of FSC-certified forests on large mammals.
© Joeri Zwerts, University of Utrecht
Northern Republic of Congo
© Interholco