Changing Planet

Last Refuge on Mt. Ribàué

The bumpy road caused some need for adjusting the loads on our vehicles, which threatened to spill off of the roof of Mike’s Land Cruiser. (Photo by Krystal Tolley)

Mount Ribàué, our last montane forest on the schedule, is located another few-hundred kilometers to the east of Namuli. This is the least-known of all the mountains we are visiting. For Mabu and Namuli, there have been some recent botanical surveys, but Ribàué is more elusive. Few have ever visited the mountain for scientific purposes. The last survey for reptiles and amphibians was in 1964 and lasted just a day or two. In some ways, therefore, Ribàué held the most promise in our minds.

Another long, bumpy ride over dirt roads provided us with some of the most spectacular scenery imaginable. The way is littered with large granite inselbergs, seemingly toppled willy-nilly onto the flat savanna, creating 1,000-meter cliffs at angles that apparently defy physics. We passed Mount Inago, another inselberg that we had hoped to visit, but time had grown too short. We proceeded past, longing to catch a close-up glimpse of the forest that remains there.

A new chameleon was recently described in 2014 from the Inago forest, and due to the heavy degradation and transformation of that forest for agriculture, the chameleon is already considered Critically Endangered by the IUCN. But Inago would have to wait for another time. We continued to bump our way down the road that finally brought us into view of Ribàué Mountain. Edges of forest could be seen dipping down from the higher plateau that remained obscured from our viewpoint, but we struggled to find a way that we would access the forest ourselves.

Ribàué is essentially cracked in half, high mountain on each side of a much lower valley. The forest on the western chunk seemed accessible, but we’d have to cross perhaps 10 km of savanna before accessing the base of the mountain, and then at least 700 m of altitude up the steep slopes. The forest on the eastern half seemed more accessible, due to a road that ran up into the lowest slopes of the mountain. We decided to camp at the end of this road, as the forest clung to the slopes about 800 m above, and we could walk directly up from our camp. This western half of the mountain is known as M’palàwé and we were informed that the forest on the top ridge is protected as a forest reserve. It sounded great.

Bibi and Michele proceed up the slopes of M’palàwé, searching for intact forest. (Photo by Krystal Tolley)

We quickly made camp and decided to walk up to the forest late in the day, so we’d have the opportunity to be there at night when most of our work takes place. Frogs and snakes are particularly active at night, and chameleons can easily be seen sleeping on branches. We grabbed our gear and headed up around 3:00 p.m., expecting the walk to take a couple of hours. We found a path that is obviously used by local people accessing the mountain. We slowly started slogging uphill (it was still hot). The path meandered through shamba (small, local subsistence agriculture), which we totally expected at the lower elevations. We climbed and climbed, all the while meeting more and more shamba. As we started to gain altitude and break into where forest should have been, we noticed that new shamba was in the making.

Michele stands in the remains of forest which was cleared to make way for shamba. Ash on the ground indicates the clearance is recent. (Photo by Krystal Tolley)

The ground was soft with ash from burned wood. Stumps bore fresh chop marks and the burned husks of trees were strewn nearby, having been recently felled. We still had some vertical ascent to make, and while the lower reaches of forest had obviously been converted to shamba, we plodded onward toward the ridge as we were sure there must be forest there. Eventually, we made a mad scramble up some boulders and into an enormous patch of brush. Coming out the other side, we were on the ridge, but the trees were gone; we were only met with more shamba. The forest was utterly cut and burned. We walked through the devastation with heavy hearts, moving along the ridge hoping to encounter something that was intact. As the sky grew dark, we found a small patch of forest, only a couple-hundred meters in length along the ridge. It would have to suffice for this night’s search. We waited for dark, sitting on a log and feeling helpless and frustrated, our expectations for this forest crushed along with the trees.

Bibi and Michele take in the destruction of the forest on the ridge of M’palàwé. (Photo by Krystal Tolley)


Read More by Krystal Tolley

Krystal Tolley is a National Geographic grantee discovering the diversity of reptiles and amphibians in the montane forests of Mozambique. Krystal and her colleagues are carrying out field surveys of poorly known forests, and following up with DNA barcoding to understand species diversity. This information will feed into conservation assessments to determine if these montane forests are biological hotspots.
  • Eric Wilburn

    Quite the cool initiative and great to see people exploring this region. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Alto Molocue, Zambezia and had a close friend stationed in Ribaue who spoke of the slash and burn agriculture. I was a part of ‘The Lost Mountain’ project, on Mt. Namuli and we are excited others are interested in exploring biodiversity and conservation in this region!

    One quick edit, the small agricultural plots are called ‘machambas’; garden in Portuguese.

    • Thanks very much for your interest.
      BTW: “Shamba” is Kiswahili for the agricultural plot and is the origin of the word used in Mozambique. Mashamba is plural form of shamba, it is not a Portuguese word. Because Kiswahili is a common language throughout much of Africa (although not in Mozambique) and will be understood by more people, I chose that spelling.

  • Sarah D

    Thanks for this fascinating and honest account of how things are in northern Mozambique, Krystal. Even though I’ve never been there, I could relate to your feelings of hope and despair. Are there more chapters in this blog?

    • Yes indeed! I plan to continue the blog with information on our findings, as we progress with the DNA barcoding! Stay tuned.

  • Stacey Fontes

    Sitting here snuggled up in fleece, listening to a blizzard rage outside, I’m enjoying my mental journey up and down mountains in Mozambique. Thanks for making it so vivid and engaging. I hope you go on many more expeditions so I can experience them vicariously with you and your fellow scientists.

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