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Home to half of the continent's animal species, Africa's vast rainforests are falling silent. Deforestation, road construction and slash-and-burn farming have already wiped out roughly 90 percent of the West Africa's rainforests. Now, the rainforests of Central Africa's Congo Basin, the second largest in the world after the Amazon, have come under the axe, too.

For centuries, only scattered groups of native hunter-gatherers and Bantu-speaking subsistence farmers disturbed the forest realm. Then, in the 19th century, European loggers and plantation owners moved in. One of the worst cases of rainforest exploitation took place in the Belgian colony of Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) where thousands of forced laborers died in the scramble to harvest wild rubber.

Today, the governments of rainforest countries are now torn between the need to protect their endangered rainforests and the need for the money, roads and jobs that foreign logging companies bring in. Growing populations, swollen by war refugees, are razing rainforest to make way for farm land; poachers are picking off chimpanzees and gorillas to sell to the profitable bushmeat trade.

Will the Congo Basin follow the fate of West Africa? Maybe not. In 1999, the six countries of the Congo Basin -- Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea -- pledged to harmonize forestry laws and form a joint watchdog system to track the effects of logging and poaching. One year later, they took the first step toward putting that pledge into action: the creation of the tri-national Sangha Park, a reserve that will cover more than one million hectares of rainforest in Cameroon, the Central African Republic and the Republic of Congo.


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