Scientists Find Hidden Rainforest on top of an African Mountain
Atop Mount Lico in northern Mozambique is a site that few have had the pleasure of seeing—a hidden rainforest, protected by a steep circle of rock. Though the mountain was known to locals, the forest itself remained a secret until six years ago, when Julian Bayliss spotted it on satellite imagery. It wasn’t until last year, however, that he revealed his discovery, at the Oxford Nature Festival.
We recently visited the 700 meter-high mountaintop rainforest in an expedition organized by Bayliss, in collaboration with Mozambique’s Natural History Museum and National Herbarium. As far as anyone knew (including the locals), we would be the first people to set foot there (spoiler: we weren’t.)
Since the rainforest’s discovery, Lico has received worldwide attention. That it captured the public’s imagination speaks volumes about how rare such places are. Humans are nothing if not adventurous, pushing our range boundaries like no other species can. But when almost every corner of the planet now shows signs of human activity, how do conservation scientists justify visiting and publicizing these last bastions of untrodden nature?
From our perspective, the answer depends on what expeditions like this can teach us about the natural world, our place in it, and how to shepherd the wildest of places through the Anthropocene. Standing back and crossing our collective fingers is not always a winning strategy. This expedition formed part of a long-standing research program into these mountains, that aims to provide evidence to legally protect Mozambique’s mountain forests. Currently none of northern Mozambique’s mountains are formally protected, either nationally or internationally. Finding new species is one way to highlight the importance of such sites and justify their protection.
As well as exploring Mount Lico, the expedition was the first to undertake a biological survey of nearby Mount Socone. Every bit as majestic and species rich as the iconic Lico, Socone highlights the threat faced by many forests in Mozambique, Africa, and elsewhere. Globally, one football pitch worth of forest is lost every second, driving countless species to extinction. The removal of trees from mountain slopes also leads to soil erosion, flooding in the wet season and water shortages in the dry season.
On our first day on Socone, we set out to locate the middle of the forest using a satellite image and GPS. However, the difference between what this image was telling us and what we could see was vast. As we walked towards what the image showed as the heart of lush rainforest, we could see the warm glow of the African sun. Soon enough, we emerged from beneath the canopy and into newly established farmland. Without the protective cover of the forest, heavy rains will pound these exposed mountain soils, fresh cuts will need to be made, and so the cycle repeats. Media attention on neighboring Lico, and the new species descriptions coming out of both sites, help to bring these conservation and livelihood issues to the world’s attention.
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