The response of terrestrial vegetation to a globally changing environment is central to predictions of future levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide1,2. The role of tropical forests is critical because they are carbon-dense and highly productive3,4. Inventory plots across Amazonia show that old-growth forests have increased in carbon storage over recent decades5,6,7, but the response of one-third of the world’s tropical forests in Africa8 is largely unknown owing to an absence of spatially extensive observation networks9,10. Here we report data from a ten-country network of long-term monitoring plots in African tropical forests. We find that across 79 plots (163 ha) above-ground carbon storage in live trees increased by 0.63 Mg C ha-1 yr-1 between 1968 and 2007 (95% confidence interval (CI), 0.22–0.94; mean interval, 1987–96). Extrapolation to unmeasured forest components (live roots, small trees, necromass) and scaling to the continent implies a total increase in carbon storage in African tropical forest trees of 0.34 Pg C yr-1 (CI, 0.15–0.43). These reported changes in carbon storage are similar to those reported for Amazonian forests per unit area6,7, providing evidence that increasing carbon storage in old-growth forests is a pan-tropical phenomenon. Indeed, combining all standardized inventory data from this study and from tropical America and Asia5,6,11 together yields a comparable figure of 0.49 Mg C ha-1 yr-1 (n = 156; 562 ha; CI, 0.29–0.66; mean interval, 1987–97). This indicates a carbon sink of 1.3 Pg C yr-1 (CI, 0.8–1.6) across all tropical forests during recent decades. Taxon-specific analyses of African inventory and other data12 suggest that widespread changes in resource availability, such as increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, may be the cause of the increase in carbon stocks13, as some theory14 and models2,10,15 predict.

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We thank the villagers from Oban (Nigeria), Prince Town, Baneekurom and Dadieso (Ghana), Somolomo, Mekas, Lomie and Alat Makay (Cameroon) and Ekobakoba (Gabon) for hosting our fieldwork, and A. Moungazi, S. Mbadinga, H. Bourobou, L. N. Banak, T. Nzebi, K. Jeffery, SEGC/CIRMF/WCS Research Station Lopé, K. Ntim, K. Opoku, Forestry Commission of Ghana, T. Tafoek, Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria, ECOFAC-Cameroon, Cameroon Ministry Scientific Research and Innovation, Cameroon Ministry of Forests and Fauna (MINFOF), Forest Development Authority (Liberia), S. Grahame, R. Lowe, L. Banin and K. C. Nguembou for field assistance and logistical support. We thank R. Condit for helping access the Edoro and Lenda data sets, C. Chatelain for providing data from the African Flowering Plants database to standardize our species identifications, J. Chave for providing allometric data, L. Poorter for providing gap size-frequency data, B. Nelson for providing large-scale blow-down data, D. Appleyard for assistance with the plot map, and the Network for Vegetation Function (Nation Evolutionary Synthesis Center and ARC-NZ) for providing some wood mass density data. This work was supported by the Royal Society and the Natural Environment Research Council (UK).

Author Contributions S.L.L., O.L.P. and Y.M. conceived the experiment. S.L.L. designed the experiment. All authors except T.R.B., M.G., G.L-G., Y.M. and J.P. contributed materials. S.L.L., T.R.B., M.G., G.L-G. O.L.P. and J.P. provided analysis tools. S.L.L., G.L-G. and M.G analysed data. S.L.L. wrote the paper. All authors commented on the analysis and presentation of the data.

Author information

Author notes

    • James A. Comiskey
    • , Douglas Sheil
    •  & Terry Sunderland

    Present addresses: Inventory & Monitoring Program, National Park Service, 120 Chatham Lane, Fredericksburg, Virginia 22405, USA (J.A.C.); Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, PO Box 44, Kabale, Uganda (D.S.); Centre for International Forestry Research, PO Box 6596 JKPWB, Jakata 10065, Indonesia (T.S.).


  1. Earth and Biosphere Institute, School of Geography, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK

    • Simon L. Lewis
    • , Gabriela Lopez-Gonzalez
    • , Timothy R. Baker
    • , Oliver L. Phillips
    • , Ted R. Feldpausch
    • , Manuel Gloor
    • , Jon Lloyd
    • , Julie Peacock
    •  & Kelvin S.-H. Peh
  2. Plant Systematic and Ecology Laboratory, University of Yaounde I, PO Box 047, Yaounde, Cameroon

    • Bonaventure Sonké
    •  & Marie-Noël Djuikouo K
  3. Resource Management Support Centre, Forestry Commission of Ghana, PO Box 1457, Kumasi, Ghana

    • Kofi Affum-Baffoe
    •  & Raymond Votere
  4. Department of Environmental Management and Toxicology, University of Agriculture, PMB 2240, Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria

    • Lucas O. Ojo
  5. Bureau Waardenburg bv, PO Box 365, 4100 AJ Culemborg, The Netherlands

    • Jan M. Reitsma
  6. Institut de Recherche en Ecologie Tropicale (IRET), BP 7847, Libreville, Gabon

    • Lee White
  7. SI/MAB Biodiversity Program, Smithsonian Institution, Suite 3123, 1100 Jefferson Drive SW, Washington DC 20560, USA

    • James A. Comiskey
    •  & Terry Sunderland
  8. Forest Ecology & Management Group, Department of Environmental Sciences, Wageningen University, PO Box 342, NL-6700, The Netherlands

    • Corneille E. N. Ewango
  9. Plantlife International, 14 Rollestone Street, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP1 1DX, UK

    • Alan C. Hamilton
  10. Wildlife Conservation Society–DRC, 1725 Avenue Monjiba, Chanic Building 2nd floor, Ngalinema, BP 240, Kinshasa I, Democratic Republic of Congo

    • Terese Hart
    •  & Jean-Remy Makana
  11. Eco-anthropologie et ethnobiologie, Département Hommes, Natures, Sociétés, MNHN, 4 av. du Petit Château, 91 800 Brunoy, France

    • Annette Hladik
  12. Centre for Ecology, Law and Policy, Environment Department, University of York, York YO10 5DD, UK

    • Jon C. Lovett
    •  & James Taplin
  13. Environmental Change Institute, School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK

    • Yadvinder Malhi
  14. Department of Botany, University of Dar es Salaam, PO Box 35060, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

    • Frank M. Mbago
    •  & Henry J. Ndangalasi
  15. Centre for International Forestry Research, PO Box 0113 BOCBD, Bogor 16000, Indonesia

    • Douglas Sheil
  16. Department of Plant & Soil Science, Cruickshank Building, School of Biological Sciences, University of Aberdeen, St Machar Drive, Aberdeen AB24 3UU, UK

    • Michael D. Swaine
  17. Department of Geography, Museum Building, School of Natural Sciences, Trinity College, University of Dublin, Dublin 2, Republic of Ireland

    • David Taylor
  18. Faculty of Forestry, University of Toronto, 33 Willcocks Street, Toronto, Ontario M5S 3B3, Canada

    • Sean C. Thomas
  19. Sommersbergseestr. 291, A-8990 Bad Aussee, Austria

    • Hannsjörg Wöll


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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon L. Lewis.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Tables S1- S5, Supplementary Figures S1-S16 with Legends and Supplementary References

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