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Does that FSC label on forest products actually buy better wildlife protection in the jungles of Central Africa?

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Does that FSC label on forest products actually buy better wildlife protection in the jungles of Central Africa?

Sometimes maligned as greenwashing, new research found FSC-certified forestry effectively protects wildlife in tropical forests.
April 10, 2024

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Buying green can mean spending extra green. Organic groceries cost more than their conventional counterparts. The same is often true for wood. Lumber certified as logged according to strict environmental guidelines is usually more expensive.

But that higher price tag could be buying better protection for endangered animals in the jungles of central Africa. While the world is awash in unsubstantiated or misleading claims that a product somehow benefits the environment, new research shows that logging operations approved by the U.S.-based Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) really are more hospitable for jungle-dwelling animals such as forest elephants and great apes.

“I always wondered, ‘Does this really have an impact?’” said Joeri Zwerts, a wildlife biologist at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands. “We were the first study to really convincingly show that FSC-certified forestry effectively protects wildlife in tropical forests.”

Logging of the world’s rainforests is a major threat to the planet’s biodiversity and its ability to store greenhouse gases in plants and the soil. While nations recently pledged to protect 30% of the earth’s surface for wildlife habitat, by one estimate more than a quarter of the world’s remaining tropical jungles are subject to deals with logging companies.

The damage from this logging doesn’t come just when a forest is turned into clearcuts. Logging roads open jungle habitat to hunters, whether it’s poachers seeking elephant tusks or nearby residents killing wildlife for food or to sell. To earn FSC certification, logging companies must, among other things, police their logging roads to deter illegal hunting and demolish logging roads after they are done.

To see if these measures helped, Zwerts and collaborators with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) staged an elaborate stakeout in the jungles of Gabon and the Republic of Congo. Between 2018 and 2021 They mounted 474 motion-sensitive cameras on trees inside 14 different logging areas controlled by 11 different companies. Those areas were divided into seven with FSC certification and seven without.

 

 

The researchers then looked for patterns in the nearly 650,000 photos of animals that wandered past one of the cameras.

The photo montage revealed that wildlife in the FSC-certified forests was strikingly different, with far more large animals, the researchers reported today in the journal Nature. The largest of the animals, including forest elephants and great apes, were 2.7 times more abundant. The next largest group, animals such as chimpanzees and leopards, were 2.5 times more common. And animals in the size category of small forest deer appeared 3.5 times more often in photos taken inside the certified logging sites. By contrast, there was no difference in the numbers of the smallest mammals, such as rodents.

“The results are crystal clear: large animals of conservation concern (such as forest elephants and the great apes) are unquestionably far better off in FSC-certified forests,” said co-author Fiona Maisels, a conservation scientist at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom who is on staff at WCS.

Given the makeup of the larger animals, it’s not surprising to know that the most endangered animals also fared better with FSC certification. Mammals listed as “critically endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature were 2.7 times more abundant there, while “near threatened animals” were 2.3 times as common.

The findings prompted researchers to encourage companies and governments to embrace FSC certification as a way to make logging less destructive.  

“We urge companies to pursue FSC certification and invest more in research that can help inform continual improvement of such mechanisms,” said Fran Price, head of WWF’s forest practice group.

This should be welcome news for FSC, whose label has sometimes come under fire in the past for allegedly giving a green seal of approval to destructive logging practices including illegal timber smuggling.

But that doesn’t mean even stricter forest protections aren’t needed. The findings suggest certified logging has wildlife benefits at least in these forests, Julia Fa, a conservation scientist at Manchester Metropolitan University, wrote in a review of the research in the same issue of Nature. But it shouldn’t be seen as a green light for chainsaws in the jungle.

“It is not an excuse to open untouched, formerly unprotected areas of tropical rainforests to certified logging,” Fa wrote.

Zwerts, et. al. “FSC-certified forest management benefits large mammals compared to non-FSC.” Nature. April 10, 2024.

Wildlife camera trap photos ©Joeri A. Zwerts, Utrecht University

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