- John Lyakurwa grew up fascinated by the chameleons he found on his family’s coffee farm on Mount Kilimanjaro.
- That passion inspired him to study conservation science, to specialize in herpetology, and to research a unique group of forest toads in remote parts of Tanzania.
- Lyakurwa’s research takes him regularly to the Eastern Arc Mountains, a biodiversity hotspot threatened by agriculture.
- He says raising awareness about the unique and diverse creatures that live in the mountains and their forests can help to preserve them and the benefits they bring to humans.
Tanzanian herpetologist John Lyakurwa was born and raised in a village at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. The chameleons he and his family encountered on their coffee farm sparked his interest in reptiles.
“I learned quickly that they posed no harm to humans,” he told Mongabay.
After secondary school, Lyakurwa studied for a bachelor of science degree in conservation at the University of Dar es Salaam. It was at the university where he met “the father of Tanzanian herpetology,” Kim Howell, who became a close friend and mentor. Howell, who died last year, played a big part in Lyakurwa’s decision to pursue herpetology as a career.
Lyakurwa’s research takes him to remote parts of Tanzania, including the Eastern Arc Mountains, which are watered by moist air from the Indian Ocean. The rainforests that have sprung up as a result are rich in diverse plant and animal life. Lyakurwa is carrying out surveys within these mountain blocks to gather data for his Ph.D. on a unique genus of forest toads, the Nectophrynoides. The genus contains more than a dozen species, some of them still undescribed.
“More than half the species in that group are threatened, so they’re at a very high risk of becoming extinct,” Lyakurwa says. The threats he refers to include the habitat destruction caused by land clearing for agriculture.
Mongabay met Lyakurwa in Dar es Salaam to ask him about his work.
Mongabay: What does your work on forest toads involve?
John Lyakurwa: We are trying to collect a lot of ecological data for every individual we encounter in the field. And for species that are superhard to find, I’m working with communities: training them to make sure they go to these sites once per week throughout the year to see if they can record some of the species we have failed to record for so many years.
We have some Nectophrynoides species we haven’t seen for more than two decades now. We are also trying to work out whether these species are declining or not. We’re sure they are, but we’re trying to get some evidence that we can use to tell the authorities that this is what is happening.
Mongabay: You’ve just returned from Nguru, one of the mountain blocks within the Eastern Arc. Did you discover missing frogs there?
John Lyakurwa: In Nguru Mountains there are a number of undescribed species. Some of them were discovered by Michele Menegon [a Tanzanian-based herpetologist and conservationist] in 2005, and up to this day they are still undescribed. So I was trying to collect some more information on them.
There is one I’m struggling to find in the field. It’s known as Nectophrynoides viviparus, which is widely distributed. Last year I got one, and this year another. They are from new sites. I revisited sites that Michele sampled, but unfortunately I didn’t find any there. I visited one of the sites where Michele found a lot of individuals and it’s now almost all turned into farms. That may be the cause of what we are experiencing now: the inability to detect individuals.
Mongabay: What has been your most memorable experience at Nguru?
John Lyakurwa: The thing that sticks in my mind is the level of destruction which we are now experiencing. It is far higher than it used to be in the past. There are places which have a lot of endemics [amphibians and reptiles unique to Nguru], and these are species that are restricted to a very narrow range, or elevation band. It’s disturbing to see even that band converted to farms.
You walk through the forest for six hours, inside the boundary of the Mkingu Forest Nature Reserve, and during that time you are crossing farms. And what people are doing, which is also challenging, is clearing the understory vegetation and planting crops that need shade, mostly cardamom.
That’s very difficult to detect, even with satellite images. So a lot of people, when they look at the satellite images, think that part of the forest is intact. But when you go there you find it’s not.
Mongabay: The PAMS Foundation, a Tanzanian conservation group, is involved with a reforestation project in Nguru, trying to convince farmers to regrow rainforest on part of their land to generate income from selling carbon credits. Do you think that will work? Do you think farming for carbon credits can ultimately replace farming for, say, cardamom?
John Lyakurwa: I’ve been lucky to interact with local communities. I was in a village called Maskati, which is on the plateau of the Mkingu nature reserve. When I was in the village government office, I mentioned what I was doing and how important those forests were and showed them pictures from my camera. I had all the people — the village executive officer; the village chairman, and some old people in the office — all behind me trying to see the pictures.
They were quite excited. I told them these animals were only found in that forest. They asked me to prepare something for the village, like a brochure, which I’m now doing.
We also discussed illegal activities that are occurring in the forest. They showed a lot of admiration for what is happening in Pemba [a village near Mkingu Forest Nature Reserve], because that’s where PAMS is doing most of its activities.
Other villages are seeing what is going on there. They are seeing the money that people are getting out of that. Those guys in Maskati were telling me that if something similar happens to their village, they are quite willing to stop going to the forest. The problem is that they’re looking for money to survive. They were saying that if they can earn some money to support their lives they will be the first people to protect the forest.
Mongabay: Will it make a difference if people are made aware of the rich biodiversity that exists in those forests?
John Lyakurwa: That’s important. In the country people are mostly focusing on charismatic animals like the Big Five [lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and Cape buffalo]. The focus is on the Serengeti, Ngorongoro and those kinds of reserves.
Not much attention has been given to the Eastern Arc Mountains, because we don’t have a lot of big mammals there. Tourist activities haven’t been well-developed in the Eastern Arc, but I believe that if we provide education to people and they know how valuable these mountains are, not just in terms of biodiversity but in terms of ecosystem services too, it will make a difference.
These mountains are vital in terms of water catchment. In Turiani [an hour and a half’s drive away] are the Mtibwa sugar plantations. They get water from the Mkingu Forest. The same if you go to Kilombero Sugar Plantations — they are getting water from the Udzungwa Mountains [another massif in the Eastern Arc].
These forests are not only important for amphibians and reptiles but are also important water catchments for humans.
Banner image: John Lyakurwa poses at Bondwa Peak while doing research in the Uluguru mountains, another massif within the Eastern Arc Mountains. Image courtesy of John Lyakurwa.
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