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If you close your eyes and think about exploration, what images are conjured up in your mind? A Victorian gentleman perhaps, bedecked with khaki overalls, explorer’s hat and an extravagant moustache. You might imagine gruelling journeys and mosquito bites, and long hard treks through the jungle carrying butterfly nets.
You probably would not imagine someone sitting at a computer, intently focused on Google Earth. But that is exactly how the forest on Mount Mabu, Mozambique, was discovered. Often referred to as ‘the Google forest’, its discovery is the result of a thoroughly modern approach to exploration.
The forest of Mount Mabu was identified by Dr Julian Bayliss, who was searching for medium altitude forests as part of a RBG Kew Darwin Initiative project. Using the tool, Bayliss searched for mountains over 1,500 metres high within the project’s target area – northern Mozambique.
Mount Mabu met the basic criterion and on closer inspection revealed a large patch of dark green vegetation, of which Bayliss could find no official records.
In December 2005, turning to more traditional methods (and with butterfly nets in hand), the research team made their first visit to the area. As they neared the summit and rounded the shoulder of the mountain they observed an expanse of rainforest stretching beyond the peak and off to the far horizon.
The following day the team trekked into the forest and spent several nights exploring and recording its biodiversity. They found the forest to be in excellent condition, but were unable to venture further than the immediate vicinity of the main forest camp.
Satellite imagery of the area was then used in greater detail to determine the extent of the forest.
In January 2006, following a second visit, it became apparent that Mabu forest was probably the largest and most intact continuous tract of mid-altitude rainforest remaining in southern Africa.
The rainforest of Mount Mabu covers approximately 7,880 hectares in total, and has revealed a number of species that were previously unknown to science. Amongst these new discoveries are snakes, chameleons, butterflies, bats and plants.
The forest has also proved important for birds, housing 126 different species (including seven that are globally threatened, as well as Mozambique’s only endemic bird – the Namuli apalis).
So far, only around a fifth of the forest has been surveyed for its biodiversity, and scientists believe there are many more discoveries to be made.
However, like many of the world’s rainforests, Mount Mabu is coming under pressure from human activities. Currently, the greatest threats are from encroachment around the edges of the forest block, slash and burn agriculture, and bush-meat hunting using gin-traps.
The present level of hunting is thought to be so high that the populations of some species, such as the crested guineafowl, may be wiped out entirely before too long.
Mabu’s accolade as the largest mid-altitude rainforest in southern Africa may even exacerbate the threat; although there are few trees of commercial interest, logging activities are increasing in the surrounding woodlands and neighbouring mountains.
The good news is that the communities around Mabu have a vested interest in the forest as they benefit from the bush meat and non-timber forest products found there, as well as from the abundant water supply provided by the mountain.
Fauna & Flora International (FFI) has been working to establish a management strategy for Mabu since November 2010. Ultimately, the aim is to establish a protected area, recognised by provincial and national government.
Supported by FFI, Justiça Ambiental (Friends of the Earth Mozambique) is currently working with the provincial government to declare the forest area as ‘land for conservation use only’ under new land-use legislation for Mozambique; however as with any conservation initiative, long-term financial security is likely to prove one of the biggest challenges.
FFI and partners are therefore investigating a range of potential revenue sources, from low-impact tourism run by local communities, to carbon accreditation schemes and the marketing of bottled water from the largest rainforest in southern Africa.
The future of the surrounding Cha Madal tea estate will play a crucial role in the conservation of the forest as this will determine land-use and employment opportunities in its immediate vicinity.
In the meantime, work is ongoing to assess Mount Mabu’s biodiversity and to better understand the threats to this vitally important patch of pristine rainforest habitat.