The Secret Rainforest at the Heart of an African Volcano

June 18, 2018

Standing in a pit in the red soil of a mountaintop forest in northern Mozambique, Dr Simon Willcock was dirty but very excited. “Undisturbed forest is incredibly rare,” he said. “That is why we scaled a 125-metre-tall cliff with a pickaxe.” Willcock, from Bangor University in Wales, knew of no other rainforest in Africa that scientists can confidently say has not been disturbed by humans. “It’s a unique site in Africa,” he said, plunging the axe down into the chest-deep hole with a whump.

Like a villain’s fortress in an old James Bond movie, Mount Lico rises vertically from the land around it, the ancient centre of a volcano with the forest nestled in its crater. It was discovered by Dr Julian Bayliss, who examined satellite imagery looking for an undisturbed tropical rainforest. When he spotted Lico on Google Earth, he said, the forest on top “was isolated and appeared totally undisturbed”. With a smile, he added: “That makes it very exciting.”

Bayliss, from Oxford Brookes University, had form: he is known for having found Mount Mabu, the largest rainforest in southern Africa, as well as a number of new species of butterflies and other creatures in the area since then.

Rainforests are the oldest living biomes on Earth and contain roughly half the known species of life. They also store more carbon for longer than any other living system. Some tropical rainforests date back to the dinosaur age, but virtually all show signs of past human activity. Bayliss wondered if there were mountaintop forests that might be untouched. He remembers thinking: “What would a forest like that look like?”

The answer was Lico. But the mountain’s formidable geography – its circling rock wall rises 700 metres above the plain – raised a whole new series of questions in terms of accessibility. Bayliss decided to focus on a “shorter” cliff of about 125 metres on one side, and to put together an expedition that would place scientists on the top of Lico via that vertical rock. But how would they be able to get up there?

It took two years to assemble the 28-person dream team of biologists, logistical crew, plant experts, and researchers for the first expedition that took place last month, led by Bayliss. Funded in part by Ranulph Fiennes’s Transglobe Expedition Trust, UK-based Biocensus, as well as the African Butterfly Research Institute, the project was an academic partnership between 13 universities, museums and research institutions on three continents.

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