Feb. 1, 2009 Space may be the final frontier, but scientists who recently discovered a hidden forest in Mozambique show the uncharted can still be under our noses. BirdLife were part of a team of scientists who used Google Earth to identify a remote patch of pristine forest. An expedition to the site discovered new species of butterfly and snake, along with seven Globally Threatened birds.
The team were browsing Google Earth – freely available software providing global satellite photography – to search for potential wildlife hotspots. A nearby road provided the first glimpses of a wooded mountain topped by bare rock. However, only by using Google Earth could the scientists observe the extent of woodland on the other side of the peak. This was later discovered to be the locally known, but unmapped, Mount Mabu. Scientific collections and literature also failed to shed light on the area.
“This is potentially the biggest area of medium-altitude forest I’m aware of in southern Africa, yet it was not on the map”, related Jonathan Timberlake from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew), who led the expedition. “Most Mozambicans would not even have recognised the name Mount Mabu.”
Following scoping trips, a team of 28 experts from the UK, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Belgium, Ireland, and Switzerland ventured into it last autumn. They included scientists from BirdLife. The group was able to stay in an abandoned tea estate where the road ended, but had to hike the last few kilometres into the forest to set up camp. They had to contend with steep terrain and dense vegetation.
Inside, they found a wealth of wildlife, including three new species of butterfly and an undiscovered species of adder. The scientists believe there are at least two novel species of plant and perhaps more new insects to identify. They took home over 500 samples. “The phenomenal diversity is just mind-boggling”, exclaimed Jonathan Timberlake. Despite civil war from 1975 to 1992 ravaging parts of Mozambique, the landscape was found virtually untouched.
The site also proved to be important for birds, especially Endangered Thyolo Alethe Alethe choloensis, which is common throughout. “This may be the most important population of Thyolo Alethe known”, remarked Dr Lincoln Fishpool, BirdLife’s Global IBA Co-ordinator, who joined the expedition. “At other sites, forest is rapidly being lost or much of the habitat is sub-optimal”. There were six other Globally Threatened birds among the 126 species identified. Of these, Vulnerable Swynnerton's Robin Swynnertonia swynnertoni is particularly significant - bridging a large gap between known populations. Mozambique’s only endemic species, Near Threatened Namuli Apalis Apalis lynesi, was also seen. This was the first record of it away from nearby Mount Namuli.
Conserving Mount Mabu is now a priority. The forest’s value as a refuge to villagers during the war has thus far helped to protect it, along with poor access and ignorance of its existence. However local people are returning to the area and Mozambique’s economy is booming. There is a risk the forest will come under pressure to be cut for wood or burnt for crop space.
RBG Kew is working to protect the forest, as part of ongoing efforts with the Mozambique government. BirdLife has plans to recognise it as an Important Bird Area (IBA), “Mount Mabu effortlessly qualifies as an IBA”, said Dr Fishpool. Ground-level measures could be most effective conservation for the immediate future: “Remoteness is currently its best protection. We hope to work alongside the local tea-estate managers who are conservation-sympathetic and want to maintain the status quo of the forest”.
As for Google Earth, Jonathan Timberlake says the digital imagery has helped scientists realise more about the world. It may reveal further unnoticed pockets of diversity, especially in areas like Mozambique or Papua New Guinea. “We cannot say we have discovered all the biodiversity areas in the world”.
The expedition was led by RBG Kew and involved scientists from the Mozambique Agronomic Research Institute and the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust in Malawi, as well as BirdLife International. It was funded by the Darwin Initiative.
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