Malawi’s Mulanje Mountain, at 3,000m the highest land mass in south-central Africa, has that irresistible allure of an isolated ‘lost world’. For this huge granitic massif, standing proud above a featureless plain, is ringed by cliffs that fall sheer for hundreds of meters. Outlying rocky peaks conceal grassy plateaux and a rugged central upland, the source of nine major rivers that escape the mountain in spectacular cascades through deep, forested ravines. Its tropical climate, tempered by aspect and altitude, supports an incredibly diverse vegetation, including that most striking feature, the Mulanje cedar.
Owing its origin to volcanic intrusion some 130 million years ago, and since uplifted and faulted, Mulanje belongs to the Afromontane archipelago that stretches from the Red Sea Hills to the Cape Peninsula. Jim Chapman, whose enthusiasm for the mountain spans five decades - from his time as a Forestry Officer in the 1950s - sums up its appeal: “what makes Mulanje so fascinating is its island ecology which has led to the evolution of endemic flora and fauna. It’s certainly a unique ecosystem, and one of great interest to the naturalist”. Chapman, now retired to New Zealand, has written widely to bring the ecological significance of the mountain, and the increasingly urgent need for its conservation, to wider attention. He has made extensive botanical collections, particularly from the evergreen forest flora, and is one of a succession of botanists to have visited Mulanje since Alexander Whyte’s pioneering exploits of 1891. Whyte noted several species new to science - presciently regarding the magnificent cedar forests as unique to the mountain.
With plants distributed among several distinct communities, any journey on the mountain is one of continual interest. On the steep cliffs of the peaks, vegetation is sparse but spectacular with the extraordinary Aloe mawii and Aloe aborescens - reaching up to five meters - growing alongside the fire resistant tree lily, Xerophyta splendens. Below, on the plateaux at around 1,900m, fire-induced secondary grassland supports a great variety of plants, with carpets of yellow everlastings, Helichrysum sp, a notable feature in the dry season while a profusion of gladioli and orchids flower throughout the rains. Afromontane forest - once resplendent with the emergent, lichen draped cedars, but now sadly depleted - occupies the tops of ravines and sheltered hollows on the plateaux. Characteristically, the forest is bounded by thickets of yellow flowering Hypericum revolutum and purple Dissotis Johnstoniana. Heaths and low forest extend upwards in sheltered gullies. Between 900 and 1500m in the great ravines and on gentle slopes, Newtonia buchananii dominates mid-altitude evergreen forest. Here, the high canopy and rich understorey provide an important habitat for butterflies, and also for birds, including the endangered Thyolo Alethe, Alethe choloensis. The drier foothills support closed canopy Brachystegia woodland - home to an endemic cycad, Encephalartos gratus, and while the tall transitional woodland of the wetter southern slopes has been largely replaced by tea estates, plants of great interest are still to be found, including a lithophytic fig, Ficus modesta.
Alison Strugnell, of the Oxford University Herbaria, is currently preparing an annotated list of the flora, collating a wealth of data from many previous collections with field records made on her own visit in August/September 1998. It is timely work, given the emerging conservation strategy for Mulanje with its demand for accurate information. While the project has yet to be completed, tentative figures are, nonetheless, impressive. “So far, I have recorded 124 Angiosperm families together with five Gymnosperm families (although this includes two non-native families),” says Strugnell, adding that, “among an excess of 800 species, there are more than 50 strict endemics, and several near endemics. Some groups are particularly well represented - there is a large orchid flora, for instance, including five endemic species.” Strugnell is hopeful that her work will stimulate further study by indicating areas on the mountain that need a more intensive, year-round survey. “I suspect there are other species to be found, especially in groups such as the grasses, sedges and water plants. Ferns, mosses, liverworts and lichens also make up a significant part of the flora, especially in the evergreen forest patches, but their taxonomy needs to be completed before a checklist can be prepared,” she says.
The Mulanje Cedar: Malawi’s national tree
Stands of thousands of majestic cedars, reaching up to 40m, once covered large areas of the plateaux, but after a century of exploitation they are now restricted to a few widely scattered patches in which dead, moribund and damaged specimens are the norm. Natural regeneration is limited, and the story behind one of the major constraints - the invasion of the cedars habitat by Mexican pine, Pinus patula - is tinged with irony, as Jim Chapman recalls: “the pine was introduced in the 1950s as a nursery species to protect cedar seedlings from frost damage in an afforestation programme. But the pines performed so well that the plan was abandoned in their favour, and soon Pinus patula became the plantation species of choice across Malawi, replacing much natural vegetation.” Rogue pines have since spread to all parts of the mountain, together with another exotic, the Himalayan raspberry, Rubus ellipticus. An additional threat of aphid infestation emerged in the mid 1980s. The pest, first thought to be the exotic cypress aphid, Cinara cupressi, but recently classified a new species, Cinara n.s., is pernicious - the toxic saliva from a single insect may kill an entire branch. However, entomologists at the Forestry Research Institute of Malawi and from the International Institute of Biological Control are hopeful that it can be contained. “We have introduced a natural enemy, the parasitoid wasp, Pauesia juniperorum, from Europe, and initial trials show that it has established on Mulanje,” says Clement Chilima, one of the team.
It's clearly a critical time for the cedars - designated endangered on the IUCNs list of threatened trees - so recent taxonomic research by Anton Pauw and Peter Linder of the University of Cape Town is propitious.
Although only found on Mulanje, Widdringtonia whytei, the single-stemmed tall tree was placed in the 1960s into a polymorphic species with W. nodiflora, a coppicing shrub or narrow-crowned tree widely distributed in southern Africa. However, morphological, ecological and genetic evidence supports their separation into sympatric species, as Linder explains: “On Mulanje, these plants inhabit different niches with contrasting responses to fire. Among many adaptations, coppicing allows W. nodiflora to regenerate rapidly on the fire prone grasslands. On the other hand, W. whytei is a forest pioneer, colonising deep fire-protected valleys. Here, burning at intervals of 100-200 years is essential for new growth as the tree does not regenerate under the closed canopy of the resultant Afromontane forest.” Such conclusions obviously have profound implications for management. “Successful afforestation depends on this taxonomic clarity,” says Linder, mindful of previous misconceived attempts: “it seems plantations in Malawi and elsewhere, such as Soutpansberg in South Africa, were raised with W. nodiflora seed in the mistaken expectation of growing Mulanje cedar, but these have proved worthless both economically and for conservation.” Planting, together with clearance of invasive species to help natural regeneration, is essential, for, although a protected species, the prestige timber commands a high price and illegal logging persists.
The mountain was gazetted a forest reserve in 1927 to control extraction, and the Forestry Department has responsibility for wider biodiversity protection - the endangered cedar being but one aspect of a wider conservation crisis on Mulanje. Being naturally protected by cliffs, the mountain is unsettled wilderness - plantations and itinerant forestry workers apart. But that natural environment is under increasing pressure from the demands of one of the most densely populated and poorest regions in Africa. With tea estates occupying large tracts of the surrounding cultivable land, subsistence farmers plots have become ever smaller with rapid population growth. A majority of households face annual food shortages while demand for firewood and poles increases apace. In consequence, settlement has encroached on all sides of the mountain, being especially severe in the north and south where forest has been cleared up to 1,500m for crops. Inevitably, new maize fields have only a temporary occupancy on the exposed and fragile slopes, so cultivation spreads rapidly year by year. Uncontrolled fires, started deliberately in the search for bush meat, go beyond the natural ecological norm, causing extensive damage unhindered by poorly maintained fire breaks. Threats to precious biodiversity aside, deforestation is degrading the natural environment on which local communities depend. For together with a scarcity of potentially sustainable forest resources, such as latex, honey, and edible fruits, the regular flow of rivers that supply water for some 500,000 people is also at risk.
With similar problems repeated worldwide, conservationists recognise that aspirations for wilderness must be reconciled with the livelihood needs of indigenous people. While legislative safeguards have a place, sustainable protection follows most effectively from a collective recognition of the benefits of conservation. In that spirit, the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust has been established to foster partnership in the wise management of natural resources - among local communities, NGOs, such as the Wildlife Society of Malawi, and Government Departments. The Trust aims to support projects in biodiversity protection and conservation of forest resources, with the social programmes and training needed by local people to be effective participants in sustainable development. Such an ambitious strategy is beyond the Malawi Government’s limited resources so the Trust is negotiating for funds from the World Bank’s Global Environment Facility. Under the proposal, modelled on successful experience in Bhutan and elsewhere, conservation work will be financed by the income generated by a substantial overseas trust, thus enabling a sustained effort with long-term planning. In spite of the huge challenges that lie ahead, Cornell Dudley, Associate Professor in Biology at the University of Malawi and one of the organisation's three trustees, is enthusiastic about progress: “with a fund in the region of $5 million dollars at stake, negotiations are necessarily rigorous, but our team have overcome initial hurdles, and, following a field visit to Mulanje by the World Bank in July, we are optimistic for a successful outcome later this year,” he says. Meanwhile, with support from Project Preparation Funds and the UK’s Department for International Development, the Trust is consulting widely in such vital areas as biodiversity audit, invasive species control, forest productivity, and eco-tourism, with community based socio-economic studies very much to the fore.
All those who have been captured by Mulanje's charm, and who have witnessed how local communities face their adversity with courage and enterprise, will, especially, wish the Trust well in its mission. For the good news regarding the mountain’s future is a clear answer to Jim Chapman's plea when he wrote a decade ago: "It will be an irretrievable loss to Malawi and Africa if the present slide towards degradation is not replaced by constructive and caring management - a formidable task, but surely possible."
Mulanje Mountain Fact Box
Huts on the plateaux, maintained by the Forestry Department, offer basic accommodation - floor space and open fire.
Walks to the 1,900m high plateaux from the mountain’s base at about 700m take three to five hours on steep, rough ground. Likabula forestry station, a few kilometres from Mulanje town, is a popular starting point - a northerly approach from Fort Lister Gap forestry office is only reached by four wheel drive. Hut places and porters can be booked at either office, or in advance with The Principal Forester, PO Box 50, Mulange.
On the plateaux, there are relatively easy walks on well defined trails, but the simplest climbs to Sapitwa (3,002m) and the numerous lesser peaks require rock scrambling so a local guide is recommended for those without mountaineering experience.
Temperatures are comfortable throughout the year, although night frosts occur in winter from May to August when snow is occasionally recorded on the highest peaks. During the rains from December to April, streams in spate, mist and electric storms are serious hazards.
Mulanje Cedar: Malawi’s national tree. J. Chapman (1995) Society of Malawi, PO Box 125, Blantyre, Malawi
Centres of Plant Diversity Vol 1 (1994) IUCN/WWF has a biodiversity data sheet compiled by J. Chapman.
Guide to the Mulange Massif F. Eastwood (1979) is available in Malawi’s two major cities, Blantyre and Lilongwe, and has a wealth of relevant information.