January 2009

Google Earth helps Kew put ‘lost forest’ of Mount Mabu on the conservation map

Jonathan Timberlake on Mount Mabu. Photo: Tom Timberlake

1/6. Kew botanist Jonathan Timberlake recording vegetation on the steep slopes of Mount Mabu.
Photo: Tom Timberlake

View from Mount Mabu. Photo: Tom Timberlake

2/6. The view looking out from Mount Mabu at sunrise.
Photo: Tom Timberlake

Base Camp on Mount Mabu. Photo: Julian Bayliss

3/6. Base camp, home for the 28 expedition team members.
Photo: Julian Bayliss

Unidentified orchid species. Photo: Tom Timberlake

4/6. The orchid species Polystachya songaniensis. The team brought back over 500 plant specimens which are now being processed in Kew's Herbarium. Photo: Tom Timberlake

Recording vegetation. Photo: Tom Timberlake

5/6.Hassam Patel and Hermenegildo Matimela from the expedition team, recording vegetation with Kew botanist Jonathan Timberlake. Photo: Tom Timberlake

Jonathan Timberlake looking out from the top of Mount Mabu. Photo: Tom Timberlake

6/6. A moment of rest, looking out over the vast forest from the top of Mount Mabu.
Photo: Tom Timberlake

Kew scientists have led the first extensive expedition to the previously unmapped Mount Mabu in northern Mozambique – a vast, pristine area of medium altitude forest bursting with biodiversity. Its abundance of wildlife has captured the imagination of the world’s press and put Mozambique’s natural beauty firmly in the spotlight.

Until just three years ago only local villagers knew the forest. Then in 2005 the eagle-eyed team of scientists, which also includes the Mozambique Agrarian Research Institute (IIAM), Birdlife International and the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust in Malawi, ‘found’ the hidden paradise. They were helped by Google Earth maps while looking for potential conservation project sites.

A series of scoping trips by the project's field coordinator, Dr Julian Bayliss followed, during which he confirmed the undulating green patches on Google Earth were indeed an area of largely unexplored forest.

In October and November 2008 an international team of 28 scientists and support staff from the UK, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Belgium and Switzerland hiked into it.

Outside the forest the country's roads and buildings had been badly affected by a civil war that lasted from the early 1980s to 1991, but inside scientists found the landscape was almost untouched. Limited knowledge of its existence, poor access and the forest's value as a refuge for villagers during decades of fighting had combined to protect it.

They found many exotic plants, including a rarely seen orchid, and wildlife including pygmy chameleons, Swynnerton's robin and butterflies such as the small striped swordtail and emperor swallowtail. Three new species of butterfly and a previously undiscovered species of forest adder were also discovered. The team brought back over 500 plant specimens and are looking forward to finding out more about what they collected.

Expedition leader and Kew botanist Jonathan Timberlake says: “The phenomenal diversity is just mind-boggling: seeing how things are adapted to little niches, to me this is the incredible thing. Even today we cannot say we know all of the world’s key areas for biodiversity - there are still new ones to discover.”

He continues: “This is potentially the biggest area of medium-altitude forest I'm aware of in southern Africa, yet it was not on the map, and most Mozambicans would not have even recognised the name Mount Mabu. Kew is working with the Mozambique government to protect areas like Mount Mabu and encourage local people to value the forest for its wildlife. By conserving the plant life we can help secure a future for all the other creatures we saw there.”

The expedition, funded by Defra’s Darwin Initiative, is part of Kew’s ongoing work with Mozambique's National Herbarium to identify priority areas for conservation in the face of rapid development.

Kew is using its expertise and collections, coupled with Mozambique collections, to identify new species and areas of interest for biodiversity. It also works to build capacity of local partners to enable them to carry out similar work in the future.