16 November 2015

From the forests and woodland of Mozambique

Martin Cheek describes his recent expedition surveying and collecting specimens from remote, virtually unexplored regions of Manica, Mozambique, guided by the knowledge of local communities.

The Palm House

Introducing Manica, Mozambique

Here in Manica Province, Mozambique it is the middle of the drier season and we are trekking up and down hills, through forests and woodland, over rivers, past swamps, from settlement to settlement, with 20 porters carrying our supplies and botanical equipment.

Our mission is to survey the vegetation types and flora of the Chimanimani Mts on the border with Zimbabwe, aproximately 100 miles south of the Zambezi River, which bisects Mozambique on its way from the mighty Victoria Falls to the sea. The Flora Zambesiaca, the largest of the Kew-led ongoing Flora programmes, is so named because the catchment of the Zambezi includes the five countries of southern Africa covered by that work. The Chimanimani range includes Mount Binga, at 2438 m the highest point of both Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The uninhabited quartzite, rocky upper slopes of the mountains, with their sparse scrub, are known for their c.70 endemic plant species (found nowhere else in the world), and are likely to be recognised as a Tropical Important Plant Area (TIPA). The designation of TIPAs is underway as part of Kew's 2020 Strategic Outputs.

In contrast, the forested lower slopes, fed by orographic rainfall from the Chimanimanis and inhabited by the Ndao tribe, are almost unexplored botanically and are unusual in a country largely covered in Miombo woodland. Our objectives are to fill this gap in our knowledge of the Chimanimani forest by finding out which species are present and whether they are important for conservation. So far we have encountered several prospective threatened species including some that may be new to science.

Our work is focused in areas proposed for conservation by the Ndao communities of Mpungua and of Zomba. Finding wild species of commercial value that might be harvested sustainably to improve the livelihoods of the Ndao, and to provide motivation for them to protect the surviving forest and not to clear it further for agriculture, is also key to the mission.

The Mozambican mission of Kew and David Livingstone: alternative livelihoods

Our mission is part of a three year Darwin Initiative supported project for the Chimanimani Biodiversity Conservation project. This project is managed by Kew’s newly formed Natural Capital & Plant Health Science Department in connection with two partners, firstly IIAM (Insituto de Investigacao Agraria de Mocambique) a research institute, including the Mozambican Herbarium, LMA, which is part of the Mozambican Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security. The second partners are our hosts, the MICAIA Foundation, a Mozambican conservation NGO based at Chimoio in Manica Province.

MICAIA have been supporting the Ndao community within the Chimanimani National Park for five years, through ecotourism and by marketing Ndao honey harvested from bees foraging in the Chimanimani forests. MICAIA have sought Kew’s science expertise to find other potential forest products, to quantify their abundance so that they might trial and market them in Mozambique, and even internationally.

The business of evaluating uses of plants for industry and trade, now resurgent at Kew, was a crucial part of Kew’s scientific work in the 19th century. As I learnt from our Economic Botanist, Mark Nesbitt, Dr David Livingstone 150 years ago was on a similar mission to us, not far away from Chimanimani, along the Zambezi. He was also looking for plant products, not to bolster forest conservation, but as an alternative to the slave trade for the local economy. Like us, he was collecting herbarium specimen vouchers for identification and evaluation at Kew, but tragically his material was mislaid and he died before the results were available. Hopefully that will not be the case with our mission’s results!

Modus operandi

Our days are spent setting up specimen-based plots to characterise the structure and composition of the vegetation types, and patrolling to pick up specimens of additional species. The specimens are dried in presses with aluminium corrugates, over a gas stove fitted within a wooden herbarium drier. The whole assembly, including two large bottles of gas, takes four porters to carry. 

These specimen duplicates will be sent to LMA in Maputo, where Aurelio will select a set for freight to Kew for identification, where there are more specialists on tropical African plant groups than any other institution in the world. Over decades of research on the Flora Zambesiaca, we have unrivalled institutional expertise in identifying the plants of Mozambique and neighbouring countries.

When identifications are completed in a few months, they will be fed back to Aurelio so that the Mozambican herbarium will benefit from these authoritative identifications, which can be used as a reference when identifying specimens from other surveys.

Collecting seeds for banking

We are also collecting seeds of species not already in Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank (MSB) to help meet our 2020 target at Kew to bank seed from 25% of the world’s plant species. Combining botanical surveys with seed collecting is a new approach at Kew and not all botanists are also skilled seed collectors. We are fortunate that Livu Nkuna, a member of the expedition team, is immensely accomplished in seed collecting in South Africa. I have high hopes that this will deliver the banking of Mozambican seeds for the first time.