Friday, December 26, 2008

Undiscovered Eden

It was one of the few places on the planet that remained unmapped and unexplored. A real-life “lost” Garden of Eden has been found in Mozambique.

The giant forest found on Mount Mabu in the mountainous north of Mozambique was until recently only known to local villagers. Not only was it not featured on maps; but, it is believed not to have been mention in scientific collections or literature. Trust technology to blow its cover. No sooner did scientists “find” the forest on a Google Earth internet map then a British-led team of scientists launched what is considered the first full-scale expedition into the canopy.

When they returned, they brought an astonishing number of previously unknown species from the fantastic array of biodiversity found there 45 m (148 ft) below the tree canopy.

The scientists found what they believe are three new species of butterfly, a previously undiscovered adder snake and new populations of rare birds. They also expect to find new plants among the hundreds of specimens they have brought back with them.

The forest is lush with tropical creepers; giant snakes such as the gaboon viper; small klipspringer and blue duiker antelope; noisy samango monkeys; and elephant shrew all backdropped by the granite-like rocky peak of Mount Mabu.

Papilio ophidicephalus, the emperor swallowtail butterfly
Photograph: Julian Bayliss/Kew

New atheris snake
Photograph: Julian Bayliss/Kew

Olive sunbird Nectarinia olivacea
Photograph: Julian Bayliss/Kew

Jonathan Timberlake, expedition leader, says now he’s home, "that's when the excitement comes out - when you come back home or start reading some of the background and realize you're breaking new ground."

“Scientists "describe" about 2,000 new species a year; but, discovering new ones still captures the imagination,” said Timberlake. "The phenomenal diversity is just mind-boggling - seeing how things are adapted to little niches, to me this is the phenomenal thing. If we don't have wonder as a human species, where are we? If we don't have excitement, what are we doing with our lives?"

Timberlake’s team was looking for site for a conservation project in 2005 when Mount Mabu was “discovered. Not long after conservationist Julian Bayliss visited the site and studied satellite photos which revealed the 80 square kilometer forest.

"It's then we realized this looked [to be] potentially the biggest area of medium-altitude forest I'm aware of in southern Africa," said Timberlake, who has spent most of his working life in the region. "Nobody knew about it. The literature I'm aware of doesn't mention the word 'Mabu' anywhere; we have looked through the plant collections of Kew and elsewhere and we don't see the name come up. It might be there under another name, but we're not aware of any collection of plant or animals, or anything else taking place there."

A few exploratory trips were made in October and November of this year to plan their strategies for the expedition. Eventually, 28 scientists and support staff from the UK, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and Switzerland went along with 70 porters to help with the equipment, supplies, tents, cameras etc. They drove to an abandoned tea estate where the road ended and hiked the last few kilometers into the forest to set up camp for four weeks.

When they emerged from the canopy on the peak of Mount Mabu a humbling sight awaited them. Hundreds and hundreds of male butterflies had gathered in the sunlight to attract mates by flying as high as possible. "There were swifts flying in and peregrines in the air above: it was phenomenal," said Timberlake.

While the land outside the forest had been devastated by a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1992, the forest landscape was almost pristine. Timberlake explained that ignorance of its existence, poor access to the land and the forest’s value as a refuge for the villagers during the fighting had all combined to protect it.

Local people are now returning to the area and Mozambique’s economy is booming. Scientist fear that pressure will be exerted to either cut down the forest for firewood or burn it to make room for crops that will further threaten the ecology.

Visiting and describing what they found was the first step to conserving the new species, said Timberlake. "They are not propping up the earth in most cases, but if you know about them what right have you to destroy them? If you don't know about them, it was an accident; if you know about them, it's malicious."

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