How to Log a Forest Without Hurting Birds

It’s possible—it just takes knowledge and restraint. And money.

Just under the canopies of the tropical rainforests of West Africa live nearly 200 bird species that have evolved to excel in one of the oldest and most biologically diverse places on Earth. Their large eyes help them see when little sunlight penetrates the thick foliage; their diets are tuned to specific varieties of insect that thrive there. As with all real estate, location is everything.

So it’s understandable that when the forest is cut down, the birds don’t do so well. In fact, they do terribly: Recent research in Ghana’s Upper Guinea region shows that since the mid-1990s, more than half the birds there have died. Some species have it even worse: Yellow-whiskered Greenbul populations declined by 73 percent, Icterine Greenbul populations by 90 percent.    

Illegal logging is most likely to blame (even though it’s tough to prove this kind of cause-and-effect scientifically). “The biggest difference between [now and] 15 years earlier is just a proliferation and intensification of illegal logging,” says author and Drexel University ecologist Nicole Arcilla. Illegal logging now makes up 80 percent of Ghana’s timber production—and logging rates are an outrageous six times what’s considered sustainable.  

The situation in Ghana is just one example of the toll illegal logging is taking on wildlife around the world. In tropical forests across Central Africa, the Amazon, and Southeast Asia, between 50 percent and 90 percent of the logging is illegal, according to a study by the United Nations Environmental Programme. The World Bank estimates that a chunk of forest the size of a football field is cleared every two seconds, worldwide. 

Obviously, this is potentially devastating for the wildlife that lives in these forests (not to mention the fact that forests serve as a critical carbon sink, but that’s a whole other problem). But it’s not an unsolvable issue. There are several ways forests can be economically productive without threatening the birds and other wildlife that rely on them. Arcilla, and other researchers, offered the following advice on how logging and birds can mix more sustainably in Ghana—many of the lessons can also be applied to other rapidly disappearing forests.  

Cut Less

The length of time a forest is off-limits after logging, known as a logging cycle, is crucial to whether and how well birds recover within them. A 2012 modeling study found that 40-year cycles will keep 80 percent of the forest’s population intact, provided no more than 45 percent of the wood is removed. A recent review of research found that even after 40 years, the most-affected species were still struggling, so 40 years should be considered a minimum.

Many countries have the right rules on paper, but illegal loggers, by definition of course, don’t follow them. In Ghana, a 40-year logging cycle exists—in theory. But “the prescribed policies for logging, which were working, are not being followed,” Acilla says. “And so the logging is totally unsustainable. It more resembles deforestation than logging.” But illegal loggers often follow behind permitted operations and cut down trees that should be left alone for decades. In many places this means that the cycles are between 25-30 years instead. “Nowadays, the cycles are too short for the bird populations to recover,” says Zuzana Burivalova, an ecologist at ETH Zurich who headed the study.

Patrol More

Ghana’s national parks already have rangers patrolling the forests, and Arcilla’s research shows they’re effective in keeping illegal activity to a minimum. But more than 90 percent of the country’s forested area is inside a forest reserve, where no such patrols exist. Expanding the patrols into the forest reserves would likely cut down on the illegal logging that’s devastating bird populations. Of course, it would cost money, but Arcilla says that shouldn’t be the problem: “It costs something, but it creates jobs, the cost is affordable, and I think a lot of people would be willing to help Ghana pay that cost.”

Block Roads

In order to cull trees from a forest, you first have to get to them, and that means building roads. Permitted loggers typically clear their own access routes, but once they’ve finished, the paths remain, free for illegal loggers to use. A practical way to stop illegal loggers is simply to get in their way, Arcilla says. Rewarding companies who dig trenches, set up metal gates, and post guards at their forest roads after they’ve used them can help keep the trees standing.

Better yet, build fewer roads. The road problem is twofold for wildlife: Not only do roads allow possibly ill-intentioned humans in, they also fracture habitat. A 2005 radio-tracking study in Brazil found that while most birds were able to fly over small roads, larger clearings stranded the birds that have evolved to stay within the forest’s dark, humid areas, says Bill Laurance, an ecologist at James Cook University in Australia. (Laurance’s wife Susan Laurance authored the study.) Sometimes these roads end up separating birds from one another and from their homes. Limiting the size and number of roads and filling them in once they’re out of use could help wildlife, and stop loggers. “We’re dealing with some of the most specialized wildlife on the planet here,” Laurance says.

Strengthen (and Enforce) Laws

Most of the wood felled in Ghana does not stay there. Worldwide, illegal logging generates somewhere between $30 billion and $100 billion annually. Import countries can fight illegal logging by refusing to accept illegally sourced products. In 2008, the United States amended the Lacey Act, which has been used to fight wildlife crime for more than a century, to include plants and plant products, expanding its power to tamp down on illegal timber harvesting. The European Union and Australia have made similar progress, but one big holdout remains: China (in fact, China’s imports have skyrocketed, and the country’s shown little sign of improvement). Reducing demand could be key to solving, or at least reducing, the problem.

More broadly, the international community needs to show West Africa and other tropical countries that their forests are more valuable intact than they are destroyed. Beyond the intrinsic value of keeping birds alive, the forests can also generate money via ecotourism. The White-necked Picathartes is a prime example: One of only two species in its genus, the unusual bird was believed to be extinct in Ghana for decades until a research expedition happened to trap one in 2006. Standing more than a foot tall and topped with a featherless, bright yellow head, the Picathartes is now a favorite among visitors to West African forests. “It’s a very charismatic bird,” Arcilla says, and its popularity supports guides who can show it to curious birdwatchers, and who work to protect the bird’s habitat in order to guard their livelihood. Tourism can similarly bring in money to support other solutions on this list, more proof of the true value of healthy forests.

“I do not think this problem will be solved if there is not international attention,” Arcilla says. “If there is international attention, it can and will be solved.” For the birds’ sake, let’s hope so.