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Exploring the 'Google forest'

Conserving Mount Mabu - a biological oasis - is the priority

Scientists who recently used Google Earth to help discover a hidden forest in Mozambique, have been finding a wealth of new species. "Whatever we see we pick up, and there's a high probability that it's going to be a new species”, said Dr Julian Bayliss - head of the cross-border conservation project.

Five years ago, few from outside the area knew there was a forest at Mount Mabu. Its discovery by the scientific community is down to a very 21st-Century research tool. "I used Google Earth to locate all the mountains over 1,500m that were closest to Mount Mulanje in Southern Malawi", said Dr Bayliss. "Mount Mabu was selected through Google Earth as one of these sites".

BirdLife were part of the previous expedition to the site which discovered new species of butterfly and snake, along with seven Globally Threatened birds. “The forest on Mount Mabu is remarkable for its extent and condition”, said Dr Lincoln Fishpool, BirdLife’s Global IBA Co-ordinator who was on the 2008 Mabu expedition. “It therefore holds significant populations of several bird species which are in serious trouble elsewhere”, he added.

Since that time, further experts have been scouring Mount Mabu for new species in an effort to help build the case to conserve a unique forest. "We are dealing with what looks like the biggest rainforest in Southern Africa”, added Dr Bayliss.Unlike most of the forests in the region there was no sign of any logging or burning having taken place. The 7,000 ha of Mount Mabu are in pristine condition. "This is an island of evergreen forest in a sea of savannah", said Professor Bill Branch – one of Africa's leading reptile specialists. What that means is that the animals inside Mabu have had very little interaction with other groups of forest dwellers beyond its borders. Unable to walk across the dry lowlands to mountain forest elsewhere, many have evolved in isolation to suit Mabu's own type of wet forest. That now translates into many of the species proving to be new to science.

For the first reptile expert to ever visit Mount Mabu, the hunt for new lizards and snakes is proving rather easy for Professor Branch. Of the seven species that he’s has caught so far, only one is definitely not new to science.

However, declaring a new species is a process fraught with the fear of being proved wrong. But Mabu's scientists are quietly confident that, in the last year, they have found more than 10 new species."There are definitely new species to be found in almost all types of animals here on Mabu," concluded Dr Bayliss. With only an eighth of the forest having undergone even a cursory scientific investigation, it's hard to disagree.

Conserving Mount Mabu is now the 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 the local human populations is growing 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.

Experts from Mozambique, Kew Gardens, The World Bank and BirdLife International are amongst those meeting in Maputo today to discuss the future for Mount Mabu. The scientists are hoping their discoveries prove that Mount Mabu is unique, and that it merits official protection. “The studies so far have shown that Mount Mabu is a biological oasis”, added Paul Kariuki Ndang’ang’a – BirdLife’s Africa Species Programme Manager - from the Maputo workshop. “BirdLife are working in partnership with others to ensure it stays that way”.

Expeditions have been 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. Defra’s Darwin Initiative provided funding.

4th July 2014