Isolated Rainforests in Mozambique Shock the Scientific World 

Mozambique continues to astound scientists and tourists who find fresh treasures every time they journey to this mostly unexplored country. For here biodiversity hotspots and hidden riches reveal more about the environment, culture and history of a unique African destination. Discover the undiscovered in Mozambique. Five remote sky island mountains that reveal incredible biodiversity and numerous new species to science support pristine mountain rainforests never seen before. 

Seasoned travellers know that the tropical beaches and islands of Mozambique are exquisite vacation destinations, but no one really knows about the fantastical Sky Islands further north. Who would have thought that northern Mozambique boasts unique isolated mountains called inselbergs near the famous Mount Mulanje in Malawi, extending out in a chain of independent peaks towards the coast? These rich Sky Islands are just that – islands in the sky, hot houses of such astonishing biodiversity and intact ecosystems that fascinated scientists are jumping for joy. 

View of Mount Gorongosa in the distance, Mozambique
Mozambique’s Sky Islands are biodiversity hotspots and are important for seeding clouds and producing rain needed by communities living at lower altitudes.

One huge discovery links these Sky Island inselbergs to the Eastern Arc Mountains (EAM), a chain of mountains in Kenya and Tanzania also intricately linked to the East African Coastal Forests (EACF) that grow along the Indian Ocean coast from southern Somalia in the north, through coastal Keny and Tanzania to the mouth of the Limpopo River in southern Mozambique!  Now the solitary, yet connected, Mozambique peaks have joined the elite global cluster of recognised Sky Islands recently classified as ‘isolated mountain forests containing rich biodiversity and single-site endemic species.’ 

Most of these identified inselbergs and hidden rainforests have yet to be properly explored and documented. So, their biodiversity treasures could reveal much more wealth than was ever thought possible. This means that conservation protection for the Sky Islands is crucial! Intensifying human land-use impacts in Mozambique go hand-in-hand with escalating human encroachment on natural resources, habitats and their supported species. Growing human populations suffer enormous economic and social issues and thus increasingly depend on natural resources for their survival. Sustainable community conservation methods are key to the protection of biodiversity hotspots such as these Sky Islands.  

In this blog, we will zoom in on five exquisite Mozambique Sky Islands as we join top global scientists on a mission to discover the undiscovered. The Earth continues to amaze and stun mortal humans and new biodiversity communities sustain life in a continual cycle of survival. We will get a bird’s eye view of Mount Gorongosa, Mount Mabu, Mount Lico, Mount Ribáuè and Mount Namuli. 

What are Sky Islands?

Sky Islands are remote stand-alone mountains or inselbergs surrounded by profoundly unrelated low-lying environments. The word inselberg is something inspiring and worth noting: insel is German for ‘island’ and berg is German for ‘mountain’. These isolated topographical structures rise alone on well-developed plains like islands rising from the sea of green vegetation. They usually have steep rock cliff sides and seem unapproachable from below, like castles or fortresses in nature, protecting their homes within. 

The first Sky Islands were those found on the Mexican Plateau and the Chiricahua Mountains in southeastern Arizona, USA, in 1943, which a writer called ‘monuments in the mountain’. Today, many more Sky Islands have been noted and documented with awe worldwide, the freshest of these in Mozambique, a veritable Sky Island region. 

Secluded forests on mountains are exceptionally rare and incredible in terms of their pristine moist vegetation and endemic species.  Sky Islands are known for their altitudinal migration (when animals move a short distance from high to low altitudes from season to season) and relict populations (ancient species that were once quite common but are now rare, for example, the Coelacanth fish). 

Sky Islands form part of that branch of geography called biogeography that analyzes the scattering of fauna and flora over time and place in relation to how the physical environment affects their changing locations. Sky Islands are usually far distances from each other and surrounded by desert or grassland habitats. Many species retreat into Sky Islands when the surrounding landscapes heat up and change and they are then stranded there. Islands in the ocean are also isolated zones for species which took refuge here as the earth was changing such as the famous Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. 

Let’s look at the isolated rainforests in Mozambique that have shocked the scientific world due to their high levels of endemism and biodiversity. 

Mount Gorongosa

A year after Mount Gorongosa was incorporated into the national park to protect its unique species, an award-winning documentary filmed the extraordinary biodiversity on this Sky Island and its high levels of endemism. “Discovering Mount Gorongosa,” (2012) tells the story of the Mount Gorongosa rainforests, water sources, rare and endemic species, how they all got here and what they depend on to survive. 

Mount Gorongosa is a dramatic inselberg in central Mozambique’s Sofala Province, its highest peak of three peaks, Gogogo, reaches 1,863 m, created by Karoo Volcanism. This happened an estimated 183 million years ago when the supercontinent, Gondwana, broke up during the Lower Jurassic epoch, a time when unique geological formations occurred, new dinosaurs appeared, and marine reptiles were evolving. 

The ancient Mount Gorongosa stands all alone in a sea of natural wilderness and is cooler and wetter than the surrounding lowlands with constant rainfall and misty conditions – the perfect habitat for unique plants and animals. It’s an extension of the eastern Zimbabwe mountain forest-grassland mosaic ecoregion along the Mozambique-Zimbabwe border. 

Aerial view of Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique
The summit rain forest on Mount Gorongosa, about 29 square miles in extent, is an ecological island in a sea of savanna and grassland.

Mount Gorongosa is also a vital resource for indigenous communities who have always lived there, who know the forests and appreciate their rich biodiversity. So much has changed since 1920 when Gorongosa was first set aside as a private 1 000 square km hunting reserve.  There were no such things as fences or exclusion for the local people around Gorongosa National Park long before the park was even a dream. 

Then the colonial explorers and Portuguese arrived to map Africa’s biodiversity, trade and settle. The naturalists perceived that biodiversity was separate from the indigenous people and that the land should be fenced off and preserved for the wildlife alone. In 1960, Gorongosa National Park was proclaimed and enlarged to 5300 square km, an elite safari destination for Hollywood actors to chill and game view. But local people were denied entry. 

The Mozambican civil war played out inside Gorongosa National Park, trashing every ecosystem.Wildlife species were annihilated and about 1 million people died in the mayhem, thousands of them traumatized for years afterwards. The decision years later to include local people in the management and ownership of the Gorongosa biodiversity riches is now bearing fruit. Several sustainable agricultural projects in and alongside the forests benefit people and nature – the coffee programme, cashew nuts, honey, and tree planting.  This is ecotourism at its best.

Mount Lico

Mount Lico is the site of an old-growth forest on an inselberg mountain in the Alto Molocue District of Zambezia Province in northern Mozambique. Finding an old-growth forest deserves celebration and secrecy because such a rare habitat is also a virgin forest or a primary forest. The trees have been able to mature to a healthy height and age thanks to the lack of human interference. It’s a primaeval forest where special groups of plants and animals reveal unique environmental characteristics that can be called climax communities. They have reached a good age safely hidden away in an undiscovered habitat in an untouched food web that still functions holistically as nature intended. 

Mount Lico in Mozambique
Mount Lico is an inselberg mountain in the Alto Molocue District of Zambezia Province in northern Mozambique, most notable for its old-growth rainforest and its lack of penetration by humans.

Mount Lico is especially unusual in that it rises some 1,100 m above sea level, most of which is 700 m of sheer rock walls impenetrable by people. The small 30-ha forest paradise grows inside a volcanic crater! It is therefore miraculous that the famous scientist, Dr Julian Bayliss, discovered this Sky Island in 2012, not long after he found Mount Mabu only 70 km away. He used Google Earth to search for significant landforms and vegetation features, and then he tapped into satellites, drones, camera tracking and remote sensing technologies, mapping these wonders of nature and sometimes physically going to experience them. 

Bayliss planned his mission to Mount Lico in detail and invited a team of scientists and top rock climbers to scale the 700 m cliffs to enter the forest within. They studied the mind-blowing habitat and questioned the locals about the site – who said that no one had ever been into the mountain forest.  How strange then that the team found some old broken pots at the source of a stream and deduced that a medicine man had probably been there to offer gifts to the spirits in return for keeping the water flowing to the settlements down below. But how had he arrived at this point? Bayliss was delighted to find a new butterfly species, a new frog, freshwater crab and other tiny mammals and reptiles never seen before.

Mount Mabu

Dr Bayliss initially discovered Mount Mabu quite by chance in 2008 using satellite imagery on Google Earth and in 2009 the Mozambican government secured its environmental protection against possible commercial logging – with the help of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT), and several other groups. Such intact Sky Island biodiversity in southern Africa is of utmost importance to science, conservation and human livelihoods. 

Bayliss was thrilled to find four new endemic butterflies, bush vipers, birds and eight new chameleon species, all of which depend on unique plants and ecosystems for their survival. The Mount Mabu mid-altitude rainforest is the largest unbroken 8 000-ha stretch of such rare habitat growing some 950-1400 m high.

Mount Mabu in Mozambique
Mount Mabu is a mountain in northern Mozambique, famous for its old-growth rain forest. Mount Mabu is approximately 1,700 metres high and the forest covers about 7,000 hectares.

Expeditions on the ground secure the vital knowledge that Google Earth throws up on a screen and speed up the protection of the species as real and connected in nature. The forest stands as a beacon of hope, unharmed in a landscape that was decimated by civil war – and now, as more people return to the area, the forest is increasingly threatened by human needs for firewood, food, crop planting and livestock. 

Mount Mabu is a treasure chest of biodiversity and unique fauna and flora endemic to this one site! The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, BirdLife International, and other conservation organisations shared their research findings about this prime unbroken 8,000 ha mid-altitude moist forest:

  • 3 new species of snake  
  • 2 new species of chameleon and a new species of pygmy chameleon 
  • 4 new species of butterfly and 4 new subspecies 
  • 2 new species of vascular plants 
  • 7 globally threatened bird species including the 2nd only population of the Namuli Apalis 
  • The long-tailed pouched rat 
  • A new species of horseshoe bat  and a possible new species of wooly bat.   

The Nangaze, Nvava, and Limbue communities live around this Sky Island which plays a central role in their daily lives. They believe in the power of the universe and that Mount Mabu is part of intricate natural relationships between the mountains and the rivers. When the first leaders of the Nvava or the Nangaze community died their spirits flew to the mountain and to this day, the communities believe that they belong to Mount Mabu. They still rely on the mountain for protection, traditional ceremonies, animal protein, subsistence farming, and scavenging for food. 

Their indigenous knowledge and cosmology need to be documented, learned and respected as immense contributions to natural resource conservation and sustainable utilization.  To this end, a community-based conservation management plan aims to strengthen community involvement in conserving the last Afromontane forests using nature-based tourism and rehabilitating the tea estates that were planted there in the 1930s. 

During the civil war, people lost their jobs in the tea plantations and were forced to use natural resources for their survival such as slash-and-burn agriculture involving the clearing of natural woodlands to plant crops. The forest is a vital water source and natural sponge, slowing down the water to the lower slopes for distribution into other ecosystems and human areas.

Mount Ribáuè

Mount Ribáuè comprises two rare granite inselbergs, naturally divided by a narrow 3 km wide valley. The second peak, Mount M’pàluwé, rises from a low-lying landscape of mostly dry miombo woodland and bushveld. Located in northern Mozambique’s Nampula Province, not far from Mount Namuli, this one-of-a-kind Sky Island is home to endemic species never seen anywhere else before, striving to survive in an ever-changing world.

Mount Ribaue is also the first ever proclaimed Tropical Important Plant Area in Mozambique and is linked to a string of granitic inselbergs and mountains crossing the two northern provinces. As human crops expand at the foot of the mountain, it threatens the still intact rainforests and inherent key species. To this end, two NPOs have been working hard in the region since 2019 to encourage subsistence farmers to farm sustainably without impacting the Mount Ribaue Massif forests. 

Mount Ribaue in Mozambique
Mount Ribáuè, also known as Monte Ribáuè, is a mountain in Nampula Province of Mozambique. The mountain consists of two granite inselbergs, separated by a narrow valley approximately 3km wide.

The key is to protect biodiversity and natural resources into the future in a sustainable use model. When the people first arrived here, they grew cashew trees, cassava, sorghum, cowpea and peanuts for their own use then they started growing cash crops such as cotton and tobacco that the Portuguese wanted to sell. They wanted more land to ensure that their children inherited something valuable and now they enter the forests to find bamboo and mushrooms.

Human settlements and intense crop cultivation on the lower slopes of Mount Ribaue is leading to increased forest clearing higher up for potatoes. This rapid rate of deforestation will mean that the forest is gone in the next 8 years! Slash and burn agriculture and hunting are enormous threats to the intact state of the Ribauea mountains’ biodiversity.   

Mount Namuli

The fifth Sky Island deserving mention in this series is the magnificent 2 420 m high Mount Namuli, the second highest peak in Mozambique in the northern Zambezia province. It’s a fascinating geological structure in nature, with first the 700 m high flat plateau followed by the granite dome which rises the next 1600 m into the sky and is a vast 150 square km in area. Mount Namuli is only 160 km from Malawi’s spectacular Mount Mulanje massif with which it shares the same five endemic species. 

The incredible rainforests of Mount Namuli are an important biodiversity hotspot for threatened animals and plant species. A 1969 forest survey shows that the forests have barely changed in the past 50 years, thankfully still undiscovered by humans and a haven for 155 rare bird species like the Namuli apalis and 42 mammals like Vincent’s bush squirrel. Also noted were 13 new reptiles and amphibians, including a new pygmy chameleon and a forest viper. Amazingly, 126 butterflies were also found, 7 of these new to science. 

Mount Namuli in Mozambique
Mount Namuli is the highest peak in the Zambezia Province of Mozambique. At 2,420 metres it is the second highest mountain of Mozambique.

Mount Namuli is an Important Plant Area, an Important Bird Area and an Alliance for Zero Extinction Site as recognized in the year 2007 when two international scientific expeditions revealed mind-blowing biodiversity on this special Sky Island thanks to a grant by the UK Government Darwin Initiative. It is also a level one Priority Key Biodiversity Area according to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. These biologists and conservationists found an extraordinary 420 plant species growing higher than 1000–1300 m altitude, with 5 of these new to science! 

Thankfully a new initiative to protect Mount Namuli from further exploitation has been developing at the grassroots since 2018.  Nitidæ is a non-profit association aiming to design, develop and lead projects that preserve the environment while contributing to the local economy. They have a strong partnership with Legado aiming to collectively support Namuli’s Lomwe communities in securing a thriving future for Namuli and the people who depend on it. 

Their combined vision is to strengthen agricultural livelihoods across current and future farming methods and entrepreneurial projects, at the same time increasing long-term protection for the Mount Namuli ecosystem by making it one of Mozambique’s first Community Conservation Areas. 

The Road Less Travelled in Mozambique

Kevin Record and Mozambique Travel have been planning and supporting remote expeditions and voyages of discovery throughout Mozambique for over 25 years. This started in 1994 on a year-long personal trans-Africa journey, then deepened to discovering and falling in love with a country still untouched and rising from the ashes of a civil war. This developed into a passion for sharing Mozambique and bringing tourists to this beautiful country. 

As the founder of the company, I have been integral to the success of Mozambique Travel and personally involved in sharing all my experiences and contacts to support various types of expeditions over the years:

  • Source-to-sea safaris following Livingstone’s route up the Zambezi by dhow
  • Finding Mary Moffatt’s grave at an isolated abandoned Catholic mission station
  • Trans Quirimba kayak expeditions
  • Film location sourcing, film permits and crew support including GemHunter in 2013 for the double blue aquamarine episode.
  • Paddling the Lugenda from source to the Rovuma and then to sea
  • Mozambique whole coast sea kayak expedition
  • Diving, spearfishing and fishing Banco St Lazarus
  • Sailing dhows from Zanzibar to Mozambique 
  • Numerous other off the beaten track feats for clients including the incredible Niassa Reserve and beyond. 

Get in touch with Kevin personally for any unique travel or expedition requirements you have for daring adventures into the less explored parts of Mozambique and how to find the Sky Islands.