Scientists from British and Australian universities and the Wildlife Conservation Society warn the current rate of unsustainable hunting of forest elephants, gorillas and other seed-dispersing species threatens the ability of forest ecosystems to regenerate.
The researchers say unless landscape-wide hunting management plans are put in place there is a risk of environmental catastrophe, a WCS release said Tuesday.
"Humans have lived in the forests of Central Africa for thousands of years, until recently practicing subsistence hunting for the needs of their communities," lead study author Kate Abernethy of Scotland's Stirling University said. "Over the past few decades, this dynamic has drastically changed.
"Much of the hunting is now commercially driven, and species that play important ecological functions are being driven to local extinction."
Mammals such as forest elephants, gorillas, forest antelopes and others play a major role in seed dispersal for most tree species, the researchers said, and the removal of these mammals by bushmeat hunters disrupts forest regeneration.
"Another emerging problem for Central Africa's forests is the migration of large numbers of people into remote forests, around the new plantations and the mining and logging camps," co-author Fiona Maisels, a WCS conservationist, said. "This population growth creates additional hunting pressures on previously lightly populated areas."
The researchers said a top priority should be the protection of megafauna such as forest elephants and apex predators such as leopards in order to maintain intact ecosystems in Central Africa.
"The clock is ticking on the future of large mammals in Central Africa's Congo Basin Rainforest, and with them on the future of the forests themselves and all the people who depend on them," James Deutsch, executive director of WCS's Africa Program, said. "The people, the forests, and the wildlife need an emergency effort to bring illegal and unsustainable hunting under control."