Google Earth Uncovers the Lost Forest of Mount Mabu

Base camp at Mount MabuPhoto:
Image: Julian Bayliss

Scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (RBG Kew) in search of biological riches made incredibly good use of Google Earth imagery when they used it to find a pristine rainforest on top of little-known Mount Mabu in northern Mozambique in 2005. They put a big ‘X’ on their map and journeyed out to Africa in 2008, where they were happily rewarded with the discovery of three new species of butterflies, a previously undiscovered species of snakes, seven threatened bird species and a rare orchid.

Image: Tom Timberlake

Olive sunbird (Nectarinia olivace)
Olive SunbirdPhoto:
Image: Julian Bayliss

On the hunt for a new conservation project site, researchers were using the then relatively new Google Earth software to browse the world in search of a rainforest they could preserve. Little did they know that they were going to find something that was literally off the charts – as far as most Mozambique citizens were concerned, Mount Mabu was nonexistent and could not be found on any traditional map. Local villagers kept their knowledge of Mabu secret because they used it as a refuge during the civil war of 1975-1992 in which an estimated one million people died; in doing so, they also saved it from being lost to development like the surrounding area.

In the more recent satellite photo of Mount Mabu, below, shades of pale green, tan and beige of cropland surround the deep green rainforest in the centre. Scattered deep green patches found throughout the lighter cropland areas denote areas of now-isolated forest. Click on the link to go to a larger image where purplish and bluish areas can be seen; these are likely the result of agricultural burning.

Image of Mount Mabu from Enhanced Thematic Mapper Plus on NASA’s Landsat 7 satellite (November 8, 2007)
NASA Satellite Image of Mount Mabu 2007Photo:
Image: NASA

After the discovery of Mount Mabu, scientists got to work and set out to organize an expedition to Africa to see what treasures of flora and fauna they could find. In the fall of 2008, funding from the Darwin Initiative brought an impressive team of 28 scientists and support staff from the UK, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Belgium and Switzerland into the rainforest at last.

RBG Kew botanist and expedition leader Jonathan Timberlake said of Mount Mabu:

“This is potentially the biggest area of medium-altitude forest I’m aware of in southern Africa, yet it was not on the map…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.”

Pgymy chameleon (Rhampholeon sp)
Pygmy chameleonPhoto:
Image: Julian Bayliss

New Atheris snake
Atheris snakePhoto:
Image: Julian Bayliss

Incredibly, the discovery of the three new species of butterflies, the new snake species and numerous threatened birds were just the tip of the diversity iceberg. So far, the team of international scientists also found numerous other butterflies, birds, pygmy chameleons and a rare orchid in the rainforest, and believe that they will find more as they continue to conduct research in the area with local partners. In the meantime, they’ve brought back more than 500 plant specimens to investigate at home.

Small Striped Swordtail butterfly (Graphium policenes)
Small Striped Swordtail butterfly (Graphium policenes)Photo:
Image: Julian Bayliss

Now that Mount Mabu is finally on the map, conservation of this valuable find is priority number one, because logging and agricultural development pressures could threaten the safety of this bountiful forest. In an effort to ensure this doesn’t happen, RBG Kew is working with the Mozambique government in the hopes of motivating people to protect and value amazing places like Mount Mabu.

Jonathan Timberlake looking out from the top of Mount Mabu
Jonathan Timberlake atop Mount MabuPhoto:
Image: Tom Timberlake

If you’d like to find Mount Mabu for yourself, use these Google Earth coordinates: 16 degrees 17 min, 56 secs south and 36 degrees 23 mins 44 secs east.

With special thanks to RBG Kew for the use of images by Julian Bayliss and Tom Timberlake.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4