Nearly 70 years ago, Edwin Ujor of the Nigerian Forestry Service collected a specimen of a tree from a forest high up in the Bamenda highlands in Cameroon. The specimen was thought to belong to the genus Vepris, a group of plants comprising some 80 species, most of them distributed across Africa. The true identity of Ujor’s specimen, however, has remained unresolved until now.
In a new study, researchers from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, in the U.K., and the University of Yaounde I in Cameroon, have formally described the Ujor specimen as a new species — one that’s either critically endangered, or already possibly extinct.
The tree, named Vepris bali, is known only from Bali Ngemba Forest Reserve, an officially protected block of cloud forest located close to the town of Bali in the Bamenda highlands.
Repeated efforts to search for the tree from 2000 to 2004 failed to rediscover the Ujor species, and the researchers believe the species is likely critically endangered. Moreover, Vepris bali has been found only in one location so far, and the higher-altitude regions from which the Ujor specimen was collected have mostly been cleared for agriculture. The species may even be extinct, since it hasn’t been found in other patches of similar submontane forests in the Cameroon highlands, such as Mount Cameroon, Mount Oku, Mount Kupe, the Lebialem highlands, or the forests of Dom.
In fact, much of the original forest cover of the Bamenda highlands is now lost, and Bali Ngemba Forest Reserve, covering 8 square kilometers (3 square miles) and an altitudinal range of 1,300 to 2,200 meters (4,300 to 7,200 feet), now represents one of the last remnants of cloud forests that once occurred there.
“It is the only formally protected and the largest surviving area of submontane forest in the Bamenda Highlands, an area so denuded of its natural forest vegetation that it is now known in Cameroon as ‘the grasslands,’” the authors write in the paper published in the journal Willdenowia.
The researchers hope that formally naming the species will relaunch efforts to rediscover a living specimen and protect it from going extinct. Bali Ngemba Forest Reserve hosts a unique assemblage of flora: among the plant species known from the forest, at least 38 are globally threatened, of which 24 have been new to science. Bali Ngemba is also home to 12 plant species that are known only from the forest and nowhere else, while 11 others are known from Bali Ngemba and only one other locality.
But as in the rest of the Bamenda highlands, farmlands seem to be eating away at the forest edges of Bali Ngemba as well.
“Nonetheless, if the authorities and communities were to halt this now, it is feasible that the forest could recover and continue to have a national and global role in the conservation of species and natural habitat, even if some species may already have become globally extinct,” the researchers write