Western Africa is characterized by a marked gradation of climate which is reflected in zones of vegetation cover. Dense rain forest and semi-deciduous forests dominate in the coastal belt. Moving northwards, there is a transition from forest to savanna which eventually gives way to sub-Sahelian savanna in northern Mali, Mauritania, and Niger. In total, there were 72 million hectares of forest in 2000, equivalent to almost 12 per cent of the sub-region's land area, and representing 11 per cent of Africa's total forest cover (FAO 2001a).
Figure 2d.8: Map of Upper Guinea Forest
The Upper Guinea Forest, a strip of tropical moist forest that runs parallel to the coast from Guinea to Cameroon (see Figure 2d.8) is one of the world's 25 biodiversity hotspots and ranks first in terms of mammalian species diversity (Conservation International 2001). It is estimated that only 20 per cent of the original extent still remains, and this is highly fragmented (Conservation International 1999). The rarest subspecies of gorilla, the Cross River Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla diehli) is found in fragments of this forest in Nigeria and Cameroon. With a remaining population of 200-250 individuals, this species is critically endangered (Butynski 2001). The largest continuous section of the Upper Guinean forest is in Liberia, where civil unrest threatens conservation activities. However, several initiatives are underway in Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Togo to manage the forest and protect endangered species. Forest loss and fragmentation are thus the most important issues in Western Africa.
Commercial timber production is an extensive and lucrative occupation in Western
Africa, contributing significant proportions of income and foreign exchange.
For example, in 1998, Côte d'Ivoire exported US$228 million worth of wood products
(mostly sawnwood), Ghana exported US$140 million worth (FAO 2001a). Forest and
woodland products are also extremely important to local communities, and the
people of Western Africa are highly dependent on forest and savanna resources
for their energy needs, most of which are met from wood. In 2000, over 175 million
m3 of wood were used in Western Africa for fuelwood and charcoal
production (FAO 2001b). In Gambia, 85 per cent of energy needs are met from
wood and charcoal, in Niger, biomass, mainly wood, meets 90 per cent of needs
(FAO 2001a). Other resources heavily used by local communities are wildlife
(bushmeat), medicinal plants, wood and rattan for construction, furniture and
crafts, honey, nuts and fruits, and animal fodder, gums, dyes, teas, spices
and aromatics. The most widely used wild food species is the wild yam, a staple
in Western African diets. Palms, together with some 35 other species, are important
resources for the wine and beer making that contributes significantly to the
daily incomes of rural households in Western Africa (African Ethnobotany Network
2000). Palm cabbage, made into porridge, is an important 'hungry season' food
during the rainy period immediately before the rice harvest.