Stories from the Rift Valley
A recent biodiversity study in Mozambique –
Rift Valley assists a scientific expedition of discovery
By Rift Valley's James Egremont-Lee who joined the expedition for a week
If you thought the age of new species discovery was over, you'd be wrong. Find yourself in the right place at the right time and you can still encounter lean, weathered and khaki clad academics, nets in hand, traipsing wilderness or hacking through jungle with that same determined enthusiasm of explorers of old. These lively characters are driven to search out the most remote and inaccessible places on the planet in order to collect and catalogue the obscure or overlooked, foregoing comfort or convenience to further our understanding of the living world.
In November last year, Niassa's remote north saw just such a gathering. Years of planning finally came together to see seven scientists spend four weeks on the ground, with the specific intention of devoting time within three unstudied montane environments that sit atop hills rising high above the dryland forest that dominates Niassa's better-known topography. Against a tide of news highlighting unprecedented biodiversity reduction as a result of habitat loss, pollution or rising temperatures, the team was set to catalogue a range of flora and fauna within these unusual pockets of undisturbed upland forest, in order to bring to light new
discovery to a scientific world hungry for fresh news. The Njesi expedition, so-called due to the prominent Njesi plateau which was due to be explored, was put together by Belgium based organization BINCO, who specialize in biodiversity research all over the world. Led by BINCO's founder, Merlin Jocque and ornithologist Sam Jones, the team comprised a botanist, herpetologist, mammologist, two entomologists and two ornithologists; sufficient scholarly 'firepower' to open up some of the secrets of this remote and unstudied area. Funding was raised through the Critical Ecosystems Patnership Fund, the Royal Geographical Society and WWF. Joining the team were a cameraman and photographer, commissioned to record the expedition for documentary film and print media.
For nearly two years prior to the expedition, Rift Valley had been in touch with the expedition leaders, keen to assist in providing a local perspective to a range of preliminary planning, given the study would take place within the western limits of Rift Valley Forestry's flagship initiative, the LAGRI conservation area. Once on the ground, help from Rift Valley's Florestas de Niassa (FdN) became vital to the success of the expedition. The provision of in-field logistics was no easy task; moving the team, including half a ton of equipment and supplies, efficiently and safely by road or by foot into three separate and inaccessible locations within the four-week study period. So it was that FdN played an invaluable role, providing essential support out of the company's Lichinga office to organise the likes of transport, negotiation to secure the services of 27 porters needed to carry the loads far from any road network, provision of an armed gamescout, translators, camp staff and emergency back-up. To this end, FdN's Managing Director Tonderai Kachale and Land and Community Development officer, John Mukumbira must be particularly thanked. For four weeks the team applied boundless energy to the task, traipsing miles of difficult terrain on foot, undeterred by inaccessibly dense forest or heavily grassed downs, to set collection traps, recover specimens and make observations. Each evening, base camp would be abuzz with activity, the smell of liquid ethanol heavy in the air as jars filled with the fluid engulfed new organisms of every taxa for further study in laboratories far away. Pygmy mice, chameleons, snakes, numerous frogs, and a plethora of invertebrates were labelled and bagged, each to be further analysed and, often with the help of DNA evidence, eventually recorded as known or new to science. Camp talk was more than often no-nonsense and purposeful, as knowledge was swapped between minds that know their subject intimately. Camp food was rudimentary and after two weeks of physical activity, not abundant enough to keep hunger at bay. By the final week, the entire team was looking unmistakably lean.
A focus for the ornithologists was the lengthy observation of the astonishingly rare Long-Billed Tailor Bird, found only within these few tiny patches of hilltop forest. Separate from another remote population of the same bird in Tanzania, the Niassa variant is possibly a new sub-species and had only ever been seen by two prior ornithologists who visited one of the montane forests a few years ago. This expedition was therefore the first to be able to study the bird in detail, capturing live specimens for blood sampling and DNA analysis, whilst making close observation of territorial behavior and daily habits.
Whilst it is likely that laboratory analysis will confirm a rage of new invertebrates and even reptiles that were collected, the process of determining a complete record of the expedition's discoveries will take many months. However, aside from the scientific value of this new understanding, was the immediate confirmation of two stark facts. Firstly, that biodiversity within the remnant montane forests of Niassa is indeed specialized and provides unique habitat for the likes of the Long-Billed Tailor Bird. Secondly, that the inevitable interference of man threatens this biodiversity. Numerous snares, designed for both large mammals and birds were recovered during the study and the conspicuous lack of game species that used to roam these remote areas is of serious concern. There is little doubt that the necessity for the LAGRI conservation initiative remains pressing throughout this vulnerable region and the successful expedition is well timed to shine a light on some of the secrets of Niassa's natural capital as LAGRI interventions build momentum. Rift Valley Forestry plans to continue working with BINCO to retain an ongoing scientific research program within the LAGRI area. The continual monitoring of species movement and health of biodiversity hotspots will be invaluable to the aims of LAGRI and an essential guide to the deployment of resources over the next years.