A crisis situation’: Extinctions loom as forests are erased in Mozambique


Mongabay Series: Forest Trackers

• Small mountains called “inselbergs” are scattered widely across the central and northern Mozambique landscape. They are crowned by rainforests, which are homes to species that have evolved in isolation for millennia.

• Inselberg forests are Mozambique’s last inland primary forests. But they’re getting smaller and smaller as humans burn them for agriculture and to flush out game animals, and chop them down for lumber and charcoal.

• One such inselberg is Mount Nallume, which researchers recently surveyed during a November expedition. While there, they found chameleons that they suspect may be a new species

• However, Nallume’s forest is disappearing quickly, with the researchers estimating it may be gone in five to 15 years if deforestation continues at its current rate. They urge the government of Mozambique to do more to protect these “islands in the sky” before they, and the unique animals that live in them, disappear forever.

NACOPA, Mozambique — It’s nighttime on Mount Nallume in central Mozambique and the chirping of frenzied crickets fills the thick forest air. Then, toward midnight, another voice joins the cacophony.

“I found one!” yells Julian Bayliss to his colleagues Vanessa Muianga and Phil Platts. Muianga is a curator and freshwater expert at the Museum of Natural History in Maputo while Platts and Bayliss are conservation scientists, Platts at the University of York and the IUCN Climate Change Specialist Group, and Bayliss at the African Butterfly Research Institute (ABRI), the Transglobe Expedition Trust and Oxford Brookes University. According to Bayliss, they are the first biologists to set foot on Mount Nallume.

They emerge from the underbrush holding a tiny green chameleon just a few inches long. This pygmy chameleon (genus Rhampholeon) holds special significance for the researchers; they suspect it could be a species new to science, one that may live nowhere else in the world except for in this small forest.

And soon, Bayliss says, it may live nowhere at all.

This chameleon might belong to a species new to science. Photo by Julian Bayliss.

Nallume’s forest, home to the chameleon and other wildlife — including more species Bayliss suspects are new to science — is rapidly disappearing as residents from nearby communities chop down its trees for lumber and burn it for food. Bayliss estimates that at its current pace of deforestation, it will be gone in five to 15 years. And it’s not the only one. Dotted throughout the northern half of the country, most of Mozambique’s mountaintop forests are rapidly vanishing as farmers, hunters and loggers hack away their trees for food and money.

That’s why Bayliss, Muianga and Platts are here. They are surveying the wildlife of Mount Nallume before it’s too late and the forest and its animals are gone forever.

Islands in the sky

Nallume’s forests are home to native trees that tower 30 meters (100 feet) above the ground, a height that Platts confirms using measurements from a range finder taken at different spots in the forest.

Using a hemispherical camera fitted with a fisheye lens that takes 190-degree images of the canopy from many points within the forest, he is also able to deduce that this forest has a lot more moisture than others in the region.

“From these measurements we can work out the amount of leaf area in the forests that relate to the potential of the forests to sequester carbon through photosynthesis,” Platts says, adding that the team will estimate the amount of carbon held by Nallume’s trees when they come back in 2020. This expedition is part of a 15 year-research program of the high altitude mountains of northern Mozambique and the researchers’ desire to see them conserved.

In addition to the pygmy chameleon discovered during this trip, many other kinds of animals inhabit these forests; hornbills, bush babies, rabbits, antelope, snails, frogs, spiders, pigs, honey bees, crabs, fish, bats, monkeys and leopards can all be seen here. Bayliss also suspects the existence of another endemic butterfly species

The researchers also suspect they uncovered a new species of butterfly. Photo by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Next to the campsite a small stream flows, fed by a swamp that stretches deep into the forest. At night droplets of water from the tree canopy can be heard falling onto pitched tents and the forest floor. Around the forest, bogs form a protective moat.

When Bayliss and Platts stop at a clear spot to fly a drone and capture aerial images of the forest; blue swallows circle it, perhaps wondering who the noisy intruder might be. Platts reckons the rare birds have migrated from the Congo Basin and have come here because the rainy season is about to begin.

Mount Nallume is what geologists call an “inselberg,” which is basically a small rocky mountain. Typically composed of hard granite in Mozambique, inselbergs formed as the softer land around them eroded away through the millennia, exposing more and more of the hard rock outcrops.

Rising up from the flatlands, Mount Nallume is crowned with forest. Photo by Phil Platts.

Because of their height, inselbergs are able to trap moisture that the surrounding lowlands cannot, making them ideal spots for forest to grow. These forests are oases for animals and plants that wouldn’t be able to survive in the drier, sparser lowlands.

Inselbergs are scattered widely across the central and northern Mozambique landscape, often separated by 16 kilometers (10 miles) or more. Their forests used to be connected, back when the region was cooler and wetter and carpeted in trees. But 10,000 years ago or so the region dried out, confining its lush forests and the animals that lived in them to the tops of mountains where they’ve evolved in isolation ever since.

Inselbergs and their unique forests and wildlife aren’t limited to Mozambique, but can be found throughout eastern and southern Africa. Researchers have long known of their potential to harbor undiscovered species, with new chameleons, vipers and other animals regularly uncovered during biological surveys.

Bayliss himself has around 20 inselberg expeditions under his belt, most recently to Mozambique’s Mount Lico, which lies about 130 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Nallume. There, he and his team scaled the steep rock cliffs to the forest above where they claim they found several species new to science, including a butterfly.

They spent a total of two weeks in 2018 surveying Lico and another inselberg nearby. For this trip to Nallume and another site, they had less than a week, but are planning a longer, more formal expedition later next year.

From forests to farms

Mozambique’s inselberg rainforests are increasingly under threat of deforestation, with satellite data and imagery showing nearly all have lost forest cover over the past two decades. Mount Nallume has been one of the most heavily affected, with satellite imagery taken earlier in the year showing it’s lost upward of 30 percent of its forest cover over the past 10 years. In another 15 years, Bayliss reckons the forest could all be gone; possibly even in less than a decade if deforestation rates stay this high.

“As population increases, pressure on the forests also increases. The forests get smaller and there is greater clearance of trees. So proportionally over time, more forests will be depleted if this carries on at the same rate we are seeing,” Bayliss tells Mongabay.

Northern Mozambique’s primary forest coverage in 2001 was limited to specks along its coast and atop its inselberg mountains. Data indicate these forests have only shrunk since then. Source: Turubanova et al., 2018.

Satellite data show Mount Nallume has lost a significant portion of its tree cover since 2001, with several areas of recent and ongoing deforestation. Source: GLAD/UMD, accessed through Global Forest Watch

This area in the southwestern portion of Nallume (inset A) lost around 18 percent of its forest cover between June and November 2019. Source: Planet Labs.

There are signs of very recent clearing in this area of northwestern Nallume (inset B), with satellite imagery showing forest change occurring shortly before this story was published. Source: Planet Labs.

According to Bayliss, the biggest threat to Mount Nallume is agriculture. He says that overfarmed lowland soil is losing its fertility, driving farmers higher and higher up the mountain in search of more arable land.

“However this is very short sighted as well because this soil will also lose its nutrients after a few years and so the next plot of forest is cleared … and on it goes,” Bayliss said.

New cropland cut from forest is readily apparent, with a clearing about the size of half a football field recently made just 50 meters (160 feet) from where the team has camped atop Mount Nallume. The felled trees are covered in soot from the burning that followed. Tomato and cassava seedlings sprout from the tilled ground.

When Bayliss approached the clearing, he found a man with a gun sitting in front of a makeshift hut. Assuming he was a local who could not communicate in English, Bayliss went back to camp to fetch other team members, including another resident from the area and a translator who speaks both English and Portuguese.

But when they arrived back at the clearing, the man was gone. Instead, they found something else which they think may have been the reason why the man took off: knee-high cannabis plants growing around the hut.

This clearing has been recently burned. Photo by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Growing and using cannabis is illegal in Mozambique, Muianga says. And, she adds, so is cutting down trees.

Muianga later spoke to locals in Nacopa village about the issue of forest clearance. According to them, local rivers like the Namaita, which are fed by water sources in Mount Nallume forests, have started to dry up. They say that because of this, they do not have enough water to farm maize, sorghum, millet, cassava and cowpeas. The only way to keep producing food for their families, they argue, is to farm on the mountain.

But as cropland creeps higher up the mountain and displaces more and more forest, researchers warn that farmers could be worsening the very situation they’re trying to escape.

“The forests act as a sponge to absorb and preserve water,” Bayliss said. “When the trees are cut down the water will disappear.”

Logging and fire

Agriculture isn’t the only human pressure impacting the forests of Nallume and other inselbergs in the region. Timber harvesting for construction materials and charcoal are also taking a toll.

At various spots along the 300-kilometer (190-mile) stretch from the city of Nampula to the foot of Mount Nallume, loads of charcoal packed in 90-kilogram (200-pound) sacks line the highway for purchase by passing motorists. Locals pedal rickety bicycles and struggle with piles of freshly cut timber poles as they head toward the nearest shopping center. Trucks loaded with wood are stopped at checkpoints, awaiting clearance by the highway authorities.

Recently harvested timber poles on their way to market. Photo by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Some of these trucks, Bayliss says, are heading to the ports of Quelimane and Beira, where the timber will be offloaded and shipped to markets in Asia.

“If you drive to those ports, on the approach to those cities and towns, you will pass many logging warehouses, all of them full of hardwood that has been extracted from mainly the woodland areas of northern and central Mozambique,” Bayliss says. “But it is only a matter of time before the commercial loggers arrive at places where there is other timber.”

According to Bayliss, this wood is being harvested unsustainably from Mozambique’s forests. He also suspects bribery and corruption may be involved.

“There is a lot of money being made. These shipments are not being checked. Mozambique is losing its forests very fast through commercial logging and illegal exports,” he says, adding that around 48 percent of northern Mozambique woodland has already been lost.

Soil and timber aren’t the only things for which Nallume’s forests are being exploited. According to 51-year-old Raimundo Machava from Nacopa village, they are also rich in medicinal plants that the locals use for treatments because they do not have access or money to afford Western medicine. Machava says residents also depend on the forests for food, and that they often start bushfires to push animals like rabbits into snares they have laid in the forest.

Drone image of a recent burn that killed trees at the edge of the Nallume’s forest. Photo by Julian Bayliss.

Through his research into the influence of climate change and human pressure on ecosystems in eastern and central Africa, Phil Platts has found that communities may also be unknowingly starting fires on Nallume. He says when the lowlands are burned for agriculture and charcoal, sometimes hot embers are carried by the wind up to the mountain where they can ignite vegetation.

Platts says fires are also sometimes started naturally; for example, by a lightning strike. He says these types of fires typically stop at the edge of the forests, but prolonged dry seasons can exacerbate them and make them more destructive than they normally would be.

Platts warns that without intervention, fires on Nallume can burn up and dry out entire tracts of forest. And if its forests die, the mountain will no longer be able to feed the Namaita River and other water sources that the surrounding ecosystems and human communities rely on.

“That is what we have seen in some areas,” Platt says. “Any disturbance on these forests could leave them very vulnerable to collapsing into drier systems and then they will no longer be able to take moisture out of the air.”

Protection urgently needed

Local chief Alberto Americo says Mozambique’s isolated inselberg forests are often considered sacred by the communities that surround them. He says that in some instances when the rains have failed, a group of elders go up the mountains and into the forests to perform traditional rituals.

“These rites are very sacred and keep us protected by our gods,” Americo said. “We cannot even perform them in the presence of strangers. The forests give us our livelihoods.”

Alberto Americo examines a tree that’s been recently cut down. Photo by David Njagi for Mongabay.

Another clearing on Nallume. Photo by Julian Bayliss.

And this, Bayliss reckons, is the underlying problem. He says the fact that the forests only have the protection of traditional district authorities with limited enforcement abilities and not the government of Mozambique makes them highly vulnerable to human encroachment and climate change.

“Basically there is no one there to stop [deforestation],” Bayliss says. “The authorities are yet to take any action to prevent the cutting of these upland forests. There are no government patrols at any of the mountain sites in Mozambique.”

Mongabay reached out to the Mozambique government for comment, but received no reply.

Machava says Mount Nallume is claimed by three traditional districts — Ribaue, Micuburre and Murrupula — which can lead to conflict as residents of each scramble for resources. Bayliss says this conflict may dampen the protection effectiveness of the district authorities.

“This possibly makes it a bit more complicated because there might be competing local forces involved in extracting from the forests,” Bayliss says. “This might make it more difficult to try and slow down or stop deforestation.”

Teresa Joàe, known locally as “The Queen,” is the paramount chief of the region who oversees and governs the local chiefs. She expresses shock when she sees drone footage of Nallume deforestation captured by Bayliss and his team. She says she and other locals climbed the mountain 12 years ago and found it full of trees.

“Is there a way you can help to stop this encroachment?” Joàe asks as she takes another look at the images on Bayliss’s laptop.

Bayliss explains that the only way to stop the deforestation is by putting Mount Nallume under full government protection.

“These forests are endangered and should be gazetted to receive protection from the government of Mozambique,” he says.

Teresa Joàe (center) with Phil Platts, Julian Bayliss, Vanessa Muianga and a local teacher. Photo by David Njagi for Mongabay.

He also recommends reducing local dependence on its forests by introducing alternative resources and livelihoods to local communities. This, he says, could be achieved by partnering with organizations that can teach local communities to both use the land more efficiently and increase crop yields through “conservation agriculture.”

“We need to get the community on our side in terms of maybe changing their agricultural practices, their farming practices, trying to regard the forest as a sustainable resource that can be here for future generations, for their children’s children, and they can still take a certain level of resources out as they need to,” Bayliss says.

When it comes to wood for construction purposes, Bayliss says establishing timber plantations where fast-growing species like eucalyptus can be grown would help reduce pressure on Nallume’s forests. He says rabbit, pig, chicken and goat husbandry might help reduce local dependency on bushmeat.

The world abounds with examples of well-intentioned non-native species introductions gone awry, so Bayliss cautions that any eucalyptus plantations and livestock farms would need to be located right around communities and far from Nallume’s vulnerable forests.

“It has to be managed carefully,” he says. “I think we are dealing with a crisis situation here so it’s the lesser of two evils so to speak.”

The research team descends Mount Nallume, flanked by burned vegetation. Photo by Phil Platts.

Humans have lived in the shadow of Nallume for thousands of years. However, Bayliss says that up until this point, the population has been low enough and the forest big enough to withstand the occasional intrusion.

“But now we have got a new age, we have got a new world arising, people are living longer, populations are increasing and the forest is decreasing,” he says. “There needs to be some discussion and awareness within the local communities that for forests like these, the level of destruction is too high and unsustainable. And if it carries on like this, this forest will be gone within 10 years.”

But he underlines that the first, most important step in saving Nallume and other unique, important and vanishing inselberg forests is government protection: “Obviously the government of Mozambique also needs to take action and gazette the forests as protected areas in whatever form that is most suitable for preventing the extraction and deforestation of these areas.”


When Julian Bayliss is not scaling inselbergs, he can be found working to establish a wildlife crime unit for the Ethiopian government to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Read more about his work at his website:


Editor’s note (Dec. 9, 2019): This story was amended slightly to include more up-to-date deforestation estimates.

Banner image by David Njagi. Hear Bayliss on Mongabay’s podcast describing his team’s exploration of Mt. Lico, here.