With his butterfly traps and his sunhat, 49 year old Julian Bayliss does not look like your typical Indiana Jones. This preservation biologist has, however, discovered and explored an entire preserved tropical forest on May 2018 in Northern Mozambique. For centuries, the forest was hidden from Man’s eyes within a volcanic crater at the top of a 700 m tall rocky mountain formation known as an inselberg.  To accomplish this feat, Bayliss needed a map marked with an X: all he had to then, was scour Google Earth in order to find signs of unexplored flora by using satellite imagery.

From his little house (an old repaired chapel) planted in the middle of nowhere on the summit of the Welsh mountains, Julian Bayliss tells us how he became an explorer – first digitally and then physically. It all started at the end of the 90s when he was 20, studying biology at the London University, and he decided to head to South Africa for a whole year to teach teenagers in Johannesburg’s western district. It is by discovering the city’s surrounding nature that he slowly became a devout biologist. “And so, I ended up finishing my studies in preservation biology, a discipline that speaks of loss, support, and the restoration of biodiversity.”, says Bayliss.

After participating in biodiversity evaluation programs in Uganda and Tanzania, the butterfly enthusiast finished his thesis in 2002, at the Oxford Brookes University. Its subject was: “The use of GIS, Geostatistics, and multilevel modelling for biodiversity action planning.” For non-initiates, multilevel modeling designates the measurements or information acquisition of a given environment by using measuring instruments, such as sonars, radars, lasers, cameras, or even satellites. And a GIS is an information system that gathers and analyses all assembled primary data. “Ultimately, we can model geographic zones in several layers (roads, houses, streets, forest…), and use that data to build the digital map of a landscape.” Julian Bayliss explains with a smile.

“Google Forest”

Thanks to my multilevel modeling knowledge, I was able to use satellite imagery to identify interesting places to explore, where scientific expeditions could perhaps be sent.”, the biologist remembers. In 2005, he had already been in Malawi for a year on a biodiversity study project organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society, an American NGO. “It was taking place on Mount Mulanje, the second biggest mountain in South Africa. And at the time, Google had just released a free innovative software to everyone…”, Baylis tells us. Developed using a program from the Keyhole company, Google Earth, then called “Earth Viewer”, allowed us to view Earth by using a combination of aerial photography and satellite imagery.

This software offered everyone satellite images (issued mainly from Landsat and SPOT satellites) , with the possibility to zoom in and out as well as showing different layers… It was unheard-of and at the time no other software offered this service, at least not freely.” recounts Bayliss. The preservation biologist is then on the road and ready to make way to Mozambique. “The Mulanje Mountain is very high, and from its top, you can see other mountains stretching out as far as the eye can see, especially those that are in Northern Mozambique. And because the Mulanje mountain was unique in terms of biodiversity (70 species of plants and animals, never before seen), I wondered if there were similar ecosystems in Mozambique. I then learned that no one, not even other biologists, had visited these mountains. I had found unexplored territory. There was a new biological diary to set up. It was very exciting!”, explains the ecologist.

Julian Bayliss then went on to setup “Project Darwin” with the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT) and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. This consisted of planning and putting in place an international project dedicated to the protection of biodiversity in a country long ravaged by civil war, where forests are not protected. “I went on the hunt for a medium altitude forested zone that I could protect, and that was in and around the mountains I had seen from Malawi. Conventional maps did not cover these areas but Google Earth did, and so I spent many hours on the software combing northern Mozambique for a forest.” , notes the British scientist. Suddenly, one evening, while observing the savanna on his laptop, he has a moment of intuition : “around Mount Mabu, which is a 1700m tall mountain, I was surprised to find a green zone of 80 km². After paying to see higher resolution pictures, I went to the site by jeep, and I was certain that I discovered a primeval forest.”

The biologist saw right: he had in fact discovered a luxurious tropical forest, so far untouched and outside native knowledge. This “terra incognita” is South Africa’s biggest medium altitude forest, measuring 7000 hectares in total.

In 2008, three years after his discovery, Julian Bayliss organized a month long expedition in the forest near Mount Mabu, accompanied by RBG Kew botanists as well as Swiss and Belgium zoologists. There they discovered a hundred new animal species (monkeys, antelopes, snakes, birds, chameleons, butterflies), as well as hundreds of new plants. This capital discovery captured the Anglo-Saxon public and media which quickly started speaking of a “Google Forest”.

The Hidden Forest

Four years later, in 2012, Julian Bayliss, now technical advisor to the Malawi government and head of its programme for the protection of forest reserves and national parks, still has it in his head that “there surely must be other forests in Africa like the one next to Mount Mabu.” On Google Earth, the ecologist is still scouring the mountains and savanna of Mozambique in search of other “untouched zones, that are potentially unknown.” His new intuitions ends up being once again true : “one day I spotted this sort of crater, at the top of a smooth-sided mountain with sharp inclines, like a fortress. I zoomed in and noticed with much excitement that the surrounding area was  heavily developed with roads and fields… But, at the top of the mountain there was a green zone, dark and round, which looked to be untouched by human activity. In any case, scientists did not know about it. Once again, I told myself that it must be a tropical forest and that we should send men there to have a look.

Just like Mount Mabu, the forest located at the top of the mountain that Julian Bayliss found electronically is unknown to natives (apart from some legends). This is doubtless because its steep granite sides are impossible to climb but also because there are no roads that allow access to its flanks. Absorbed by his Malawi mission, the ecologist leaves his new idea aside for the next four years. Then, in February 2017, he takes a 4×4 to the foot of the mountain that the Mozambicans call “Mount Lico”. With some trouble he crosses rivers, old bridges, and stops his vehicle at the bottom of an impractical dirt trail. “I took out a drone, which I sent to the top of the mountain, at about 500 m of altitude… And I finally had my thoughts confirmed. I was really seeing the forest I had imagined. And I was the first to see it.

With his pictures, Julian Bayliss once again convinced botanists from Royal Botanics Garden, Kew to organize a new expedition just like the one to Mount Mabu. In May 2018, 28 scientists from 13 different universities and research institutes take part in the adventure. They are helped by hikers like Mike Robertson who is known to have scaled the Eiffel Tower in 2007 without any equipment. Julian Bayliss takes his butterfly traps with him and scales the mountain to finally tread on the grounds he had been dreaming of for the past ten years.

A “Temporary Capsule”

For Julian Bayliss, it’s all clear: “without Google Earth, I would never have been able to find and explore this untouched forest. At the end of the day, you still have to take a vehicle to the place to see if it actually is real. But it is still a tool of great interest to scientists, who often work on difficult terrain. This software can help you find places of interest and then help you gauge their size.” According to the ecologist, other services similar to Google Earth – like Geoportal from the French National Geographical Institute – does not offer “satellite images with as good a resolution”.

The preservation biologist does not hide the fact that he has spotted “other interesting sites” using the Google software, which could be candidates for other expeditions. He indicates that “I have already found them, but will doubtless use Google Earth before venturing out, so that I have a good idea of the site view and its details.” He also observes that “thanks to the caches” that the software keeps “it is possible to use satellite imagery from Google Earth directly at the site by bringing your laptop.” Of course, Julian Bayliss uses other systems of satellite imagery “with higher a resolution, that implemented in a geographical information system.”, but he admits that “Google Earth is the first tool I use when it comes to planning.

Research is still ongoing, but Mount Mabu’s tropical forest, so far unexplored and spared from human interference, holds a great many species (reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish) and plants that are unique to our world. “We are always analyzing the data that we gathered over there, but we can already say that this discovery has helped us create attention for the mountains of northern Mozambique, which are still unprotected, and are thus under threat; what we have done is shined a light on these mountains preservation needs. That is probably the most important thing for now”, Julian Bayliss notes while shrugging.

Against this fairy tale is set the ecological reality. The forest of Mount Lico is a type of “temporary capsule” for the biologist. By running tests on the forest’s tree trunks, “it should be possible to tell the story of climate change, by observing human impact on a forest as of yet untouched by Man.

What is left to explore in 2018? The ecologist throws out that, “if you have any doubts, the Mount Mabu and Mount Lico discoveries should let you know that there is still plenty to discover. We have only discovered 20% of living species on our planets, and 70% of the animals on Earth live in tropical forests. This is why I am giving a warning cry to all that we need to protect these tropical lands. Scientists estimate a loss of 40 animal species due to human activity. The destruction of tropical forests is humanity’s greatest crime at the moment, because without untouched forests, our air will no longer be recycled and we will slowly kill our specie.