While exploring the montane forests of Mozambique last December, my crew and I hoped to discover unique species in these little-known ecosystems, also called sky islands, that are isolated from the surrounding savanna. Along the way, we made some exciting new discoveries—including a new species of chameleon—and some sobering ones.
Prepared to survey the elusive Mount Ribàué for reptiles and amphibians, we made the climb to a forest on M’palàwé, the mountain’s western half. We hoped to explore what we’d been told was a protected forest reserve and found instead that it had been cleared for subsistence agriculture (called shamba), its trees cut and burned. Walking through the unexpected devastation on the ridge, we eventually found a small patch of unharmed forest and waited, heavyhearted, until dark, when frogs and snakes are most active.
Reptiles and More Hanging On—By a Thread
As night fell, we started our search, slowly walking through the patch of forest, scanning the trees and ground with headlamps. After about ten minutes, a wave of relief rushed in—I had spotted a small leaf chameleon (Rhampholeon) on a low branch. It was what I was hoping to see, and it was certainly an unknown species. At least they were surviving in this small, remnant patch of forest.
To our surprise, the evening’s search produced some other exciting discoveries, including a tree snake (Dipsadaboa) and a king dwarf gecko (Lygodactylus). During our search, we spied a few sets of bright little eyes reflecting back our lights, peering out at us from the trees. Bush babies were watching our movements. These are endearing, secretive little primates that can be found in most montane forests of Africa. So they were also hanging on in this small forest patch.
We soon ran out of forest to search, and while we tried to move farther along the ridge, the shamba area was so thick with newly felled trees that we couldn’t move through. We called it quits and stumbled our way down the mountain to camp.
A Forest’s Last Gasp?
Our tight schedule didn’t afford us much more time at M’palàwé. We worked the lower slopes for a day, then my team members Bibi and Michele and I made a second attempt to find some untouched forest. We headed off in a slightly different direction, to what we thought would be better forest. As we had on our first climb, we trudged past lower shambas, using well-trodden paths baked hard by the sun. These shambas seemed to be well established and primarily devoted to cassava cultivation. As we gained altitude, maize agriculture was more common, and the shambas seemed newer, most with burned tree stumps scattered throughout.
Upward we proceeded to the point where forest should have started, and again we were met with very newly created shamba. Each footfall threw up a cloud of ash, the landscape scattered with charred remains of the forest. We could see fires burning at this level, the sign of forest being converted to shamba. Giant trees, felled and burnt, littered the ground were we stood, a few small maize plants popping up in their stead. We were exhausted, and we were gutted. So much hope for a better outcome had turned to feelings of desperation.
We kept on, pushing through what we hoped was the forest edge, over some sheer boulders, then down a steep embankment, with a scramble up the other side. We broke through the edge and were met with a cool, lush, and very healthy green bit of forest. It was welcome sight, but it was perched on the very edge of shambas that had once been part of this same forest. We sat down for a rest, and I could only think of the fate that surely awaits the bush babies and leaf chameleons. If the destruction continues to proceed unchecked, their home will soon be destroyed—and they will disappear.
I sat there in this little forest patch, and I wept for these blameless creatures that will lose, because we humans will win in our quest for resources and space, as our population grows ever larger. I was slightly embarrassed in front of Michele and Bibi, but I couldn’t stop. Finally, as dark fell, we began our survey. We found little that night, although happily, we did find some additional chameleons. Perhaps our hearts were just not in it after what we had seen on this, our last night of survey for the expedition.
The Most Terrifying Consideration
As we packed up camp the next day, most of our talk was about the destruction of the forests both here and on Mount Namuli, where our previous survey had been. We had indeed found some new species, which was our goal. And now we have a lot of follow-up work to do, including bar coding the DNA samples we collected, to try to understand the diversity of these forests. In addition, new species will have to be described, which is a time-consuming but rewarding process.
Exciting as all that may be, we finish the expedition somehow focused more heavily on whether these remaining fragments of forest can be conserved. That angle is a most unexpected outcome of the expedition. I had expected to find new species and see beautiful forests, but I had not expected the destruction—or my poignant reaction to it. Certainly, most of my thoughts now are on mobilizing efforts and funding that could be directed toward first understanding the local issues that are contributing to the loss, then ultimately taking actions that could mitigate the loss while not affecting the livelihood of the people involved.
The most terrifying consideration, however, is that time is running out very quickly. The forests have already been severely impacted, the rate of destruction appears to be very high, and remaining areas are already small. I sincerely hope that something can be done to conserve these repositories for extraordinary biodiversity before all is lost.