The Somali Research Project: a multi-disciplinary expedition to the riverine forests of the Juba, southern Somalia
by Michael Maunder
At midday on Friday 4th July 1986 I staggered out of the final exam for the Kew Diploma, by the following Monday morning I was flying out to Somalia via Nairobi. I was to join a team of Biologists who were to carry out an ecological survey of the remaining patches of riverine forest on the Juba River, southern Somalia. Travelling with Nigel Varty (zoologist, Kings College London) we were to be met in Mogadishu by Jane Madgwick (Expedition leader; Suffolk Trust for Nature Conservation) and Mr. Brian Wood (zoologist, University College London).
The expedition represented a final chance to investigate the Juba’s forest, an area never before recorded in any detail. The expansion of agriculture along Somalia’s only other perennial river, the Schabeelle, has left the only sizeable areas of forest on the Juba River. In the relatively remote south peasant agriculture and extensive recent plantations are clearing the forest at an alarming rate. This destruction will only be accelerated in the future. The river is being dammed to provide hydro-electric power, so removing Mogadishu’s dependence on dwindling supplies of Acacia bussei charcoal. The building of the dam will profoundly change the existing village systems and with the forest the extensive and intimate local knowledge of forest products will also disappear.
After a week in Mogadishu we left for the field with our two Somali counterparts, Igal from the National Range Agency (N.R.A.), and Dahir from the N.R.A. Herbarium. For a while the last of the rains held us up in the town of Buaale, then once the roads dried out we travelled north to our first site.
Navigating by compass and using aerial photographs we located the first area near the village of Dhokal. On reaching the forest the observer is struck by the lush growth, shade and humidity, especially notable after passage through the dry, grey thorn bush. The riverine or gallery forest forms a thin strip along the river banks, the trees form a canopy reaching up to around 25 metres with emergents up to 30 metres. The forest is often dense with liana thicket (Landolphla, Hunteria, Acridocarpus, Cissus etc.) and difficult to move through. On the sandy soil of the river bank huge Ficus sycomorus trees grow, their abundant fruit proving popular with the troops of blue monkey Cerropithecus mitis. Underneath these huge trees would grow a dense understorey of Lecaniodiscus and Sorindeia. Other trees present in the forest included Mimusops fruticosa, Garrinia sp., Trichilia, Acacia sp. and a species of ebony Diospyros. Adjacent to the tall forest there would be areas of dense woodland often dominated by Newtonia erlangeri and the palm Hyphaene coriacea, with smaller trees of Balanites, Sterculia etc. The forest in places grew near large regularly flooding lakes of ‘desheles’, there Lawsonia inermis grew with Garcinia before grading into a marginal scrub of Sesbania, Paronia, Mimosa pigra and with Neptunia at the water’s edge.
Work would start at first light extracting bats (often large and irate fruit bats) from mist nets or doing the small mammal trap line with Nigel Varty. With Jane Madgwick I was responsible for surveying forest structure and recording species composition, in association with this job I was to collect ethno-botanical information on timber and medicinal plants. I was very fortunate to work with amah Hussein, a local carpenter and healer of great local fame. He provided much information that would otherwise have been unobtainable.
The forest proved to be a comfortable environment in which to work but not without its problems. Tsetse fly were a constant irritation but of minor import compared with the prevalence of hippo in some areas. On the approach of a hippo, refuge would be taken in the nearest tree, incidentally throwing a plant press at an approaching hippo is not to be recommended. On another occasion a hasty exit was performed through what was generally recognised as impenetrable thicket after I walked into a group of buffalo.
By mid-September the field work was over and we returned to Mogadishu. For a week we held a series of seminars and lectures lobbying Government departments for the creation of a national park within the Juba. A day of field techniques and practical lectures was given at the Balcad Nature Reserve near Mogadishu, where, with Eric Trump (ex Nairobi Herbarium), a nature trail was prepared for the reserve. As a result of the expedition’s work the future of the remaining forests looks more hopeful with official Somali response looking promising. The National Academy of Sciences (Washington D.C.) is planning an agro-forestry project in the area using remaining forest as a seed source. Even if the felling stops the changes in forest composition from altered flooding regimes and spraying for tsetse fly control may well be profound.
I would like to thank those individuals and organisations who made my participation in the expedition possible and the many who helped the expedition as a whole in this country and in Somalia. In Britain the authorities of LC.D. Kew and the Herbarium, Kew, and in particular the Kew Guild for their valuable financial assistance. Within Somalia Dr. Karani of the N.R.A., Mr. John Leefs and Dr. Rod Brown of the U.K. Forestry Project.