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Malawi's Endemic Species - Clinging to Life

Rupert Wilkey has written over twenty books, many on reptiles of Malawi. His latest book is MALAWI’S ENDEMIC SPECIES due out in October.

Malawi’s Endemic Species

Having lived in Malawi for thirteen years I had spent many weekends climbing Mount Mulanje and although I had a keen interest in Malawi’s flora and fauna, I have to admit that I wasn’t really aware of the predicament that many species were in, even between 1975 and 1988.

I had been captivated by the forests of Mulanje Cedar (Widdringtonia whytei) on the mountain; these huge evergreen trees, towering 40 - 50m above the forest floor, are an endemic species; meaning this tree is only found on Mount Mulanje in Malawi and nowhere else in the world.

As residents we often bought products made from Mulanje Cedar, and I was as guilty as everyone else, I had bought a blanket box once as well as other smaller boxes. We had assumed that buying these wooden items from local carpenters that we were helping to support them and their families; and that the wood was being sourced from regulated sections of Mulanje’s forested slopes. After all, Mount Mulanje was, and still is, a forest reserve managed by the Malawi Government Department of Forestry. (It was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000).

The shock came when a survey was carried out in 2004 that found that, due to logging, only 845 ha of Cedar forest was left on Mount Mulanje and within that area almost 33% of the trees were dead (Makungwa 2004). The cedar was disappearing, and fast.

Then in 2014, the Forestry Research Institute of Malawi (FRIM) conducted a survey which found 63,747 standing mature trees on Mount Mulanje, out of which 38,138 were alive and 25,609 were dead. Both of these assessments were carried out after illegal logging had taken place, meaning that the original population was much higher.

The horrific news came in January 2017, when a joint survey was carried out on Mount Mulanje by Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT), FRIM and Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI) which only found seven remaining mature individuals. The sites of the largest of these individuals was revisited shortly after and the trees had been felled by illegal harvesters.

It is now thought that fewer than 50 mature individual Mulanje Cedar trees remain on the mountain, and we should feel ashamed that we have allowed this to happen.

When I visited Mulanje Mountain in 2016 I was shocked and deeply saddened to see that almost all of the cedars had gone! My main reason for my 2016 visit to the mountain was that for over 40 years I had been looking for Rhampholeon platyceps, commonly known as the Mount Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon or Malawi Stumptail Chameleon. Despite numerous trips to Mulanje over those four decades I had failed to find a single specimen.

After almost eight days on Mt Mulanje in 2016 we found three specimens in a small forested gorge high on the mountain. I realised that day that these tiny creatures were literally clinging to life in a small remnant of forest in this tiny gorge. I was initially ecstatic to find these amazing chameleons after decades of searching, but as we took the last few photographs, I felt immensely saddened and a wave of grief came over me as to what would happen to these three tiny individuals. As I walked out of the gorge I felt that I was abandoning a child, leaving them to their fate. It's a feeling of guilt I still have today, almost four years later.

Their existence is fragile, and unless we can do something to preserve their habitat they will vanish and vanish forever. They need our protection.

It has been said many times before that “Extinction is forever” and that “Our world would be poorer without these creatures”. How true they were.

If you have read this and think "oh it's just a tree and a few chameleons". Well 149 of Malawi's endemic cichlid fish species are also threatened with extinction. These special fish are only found in Lake Malawi. Estimates put the total number of cichlid species in the lake at between 700 and 1,000 - meaning that over 10% of them are threatened and likely to disappear.

We cannot just stand by and let these unique animals disappear forever.

MALAWI'S ENDEMIC SPECIES (Over 200 species found nowhere else on the planet and are threatened with extinction) will be available in paperback on Amazon in October 2020


Rhampholeon platyceps

Rhampholeon platyceps on Mulanje Mountain 2016

Rhampholeon platyceps on Mulanje Mountain 2016

Rhampholeon platyceps

Rhampholeon platyceps on Mulanje Mountain 2016

Rhampholeon platyceps on Mulanje Mountain 2016

The rainforest of the Ruo Gorge on Mount Mulanje

The Ruo Gorge, Mulanje

The Ruo Gorge, Mulanje

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Wilkey