Local Nonprofit Documents New Species in Mozambique

Alliance Earth Plans to Engage Local Students in Telling Important Environmental and Science Stories

Alliance Earth’s interest in Mount Mabu began in 2010 when I teamed up with a group of scientists called the Darwin Initiative to film a video that would begin telling the story of the wonders this remote mountain has long hidden.

Dr. Julian Bayliss discovered Mount Mabu in 2006 when he was working with the Royal Botanic Gardens (Kew) in partnership with the Mozambican government’s Department of Agricultural Research. Since then, scientists have repeatedly returned to Mabu, finding 55 previously-unknown plants and animals, including chameleons, snakes, butterflies, bats and a wealth of trees and other plants.

As the story goes, Bayliss first found Mount Mabu on Google Earth.

That’s true to a point, but Bayliss explains that he simply used the Google tool to locate all the mountains over a certain height in the area. He then had to climb each one. Bayliss was looking for new species, and isolated mountains are good places to find them.

Mount Mabu rises more than a mile above sea level in Mozambique’s remote Zambezia Province. The 5,500 foot peak is called an “isolate”, and isolates, like islands, breed unique species. The Mabu area has been isolated for so long that species have adapted and evolved to suit its specific environment, occurring there and no place else.

Working in his office, Bayliss was able to separate out forests using infrared filters and a satellite map, but it was only by hiking up the mountains, hacking through undergrowth, getting sweaty and bitten by spiders that he discovered a rainforest that has turned out to be the largest in southern Africa.

That the forest is almost untouched by human presence is clear. A video we produced in 2010 shows no chopped stumps and few paths. Big forest giants like the mahogany trees are only falling because of occasional rot.

The 2010 expedition that was documented by Alliance Earth was hosted by the Darwin Initiative team and led by Bayliss in partnership with the Mozambique’s Department of Agricultural Research. The team included leading scientists such as Bill Branch, an author and esteemed herpetologist from southern Africa, and Steve Collins, the head of the African Butterfly Research Institute, based in Kenya.

Researchers on previous trips generally took their finds back to laboratories so that they could consult with senior scientists. But Branch and Collins, giants in their fields, were able to confirm potential finds with a more practiced opinion. In some cases, they could confirm new species right there in the forest. That they joined the expedition was testament to the importance of Mount Mabu’s hotbed of biodiversity.

New species are rare. Werner Conradie, a doctoral student working with professor Branch on Mozambique’s Mount Mabu, put it into perspective: “Some people take years, maybe a lifetime, to find one new species. As a young scientist, it’s a dream to find new species—and at this moment, being in this place, anything can be new.”

In the video, trees rise like the pillars of a cathedral. The forest floor is dark, damp and covered in leaf litter. In the darkness of the canyon-like forest floor, the scientists are busy.

“This is new to science!” exclaims Professor Bill Branch, pointing to the small reptile blinking at his flashlight. “We came here especially to find a new species of chameleon, and this is it!” He handles the tiny little hatchling chameleon with care, like a lady looking over a fine diamond.

It’s late, and in June it’s winter here. It’s cold in the Mozambican rainforest, but Branch’s excitement brings others in the camp out of their beds. Soon, many team members are wandering the forest floor like fireflies, crunching the leaves under their boots and shining their flashlights to look into the thin branches of small trees for chameleons.

The little chameleons are everywhere. Even the untrained eye can pick them out among the foliage, clinging about a meter above ground, every ten meters or so. They sleep above the ground, away from predators. When they’re caught in the harsh glare of the flashlight, they resent the intrusion, searching with sleep-stuck eyes for the chameleon equivalent of a cup of hot black coffee. Or at least more sleep.

Today, the mountain has been offered some limited protection from loggers, but it has yet to be named as an officially protected National Park.

To raise awareness about this bio-diverse jewel in the sky, Barbee and Bayliss hope to return to the mountain in October, 2016. Their goal is to cross the center of the forest for the first time, to create 360-degree imagery and a film, and to map a trail that can be used for conservation and appropriate environmental tourism in the future.

“We want to let youngsters join the expedition through the internet, and we will be making some special material for school-age kids and their parents to get involved,” explains Bayliss. “We are seeking funding both to underwrite internships for college-aged photographers to join the documentary process in Africa, and also to produce those materials. If you’d like to recommend a person or a program to Alliance Earth, you’re welcome to contact us through our website.”

To follow the expedition, see Alliance Earth’s first short film about it, or make a donation, see AllianceEarth.org.

About the Author

Jeffrey Barbee works as a photojournalist out of his studio in Johannesburg, South Africa and is the executive director of Alliance Earth, a nonprofit based in Basalt. Barbee started his photographic education in 1994 at Colorado Mountain College, then went on to work for National Geographic photographer David Hiser as an apprentice and assistant. Barbee’s photographic work on AIDS, education and environmental topics appears regularly in the New York Times, the Guardian, Newsweek, GEO and other newspapers and magazines.