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Malawi: Fragile Forests PDF Print Email
Issue 17
As village life encroaches on Malawi's 70 forest reserves, endemic species are under threat, as well as some of Africa's finest scenery. Richard Newton investigates.

As village life encroaches on Malawi's 70 forest reserves, endemic species are under threat, as well as some of Africa's finest scenery. Richard Newton investigates.

Walking to the forest, I am slow to register that the forest has come to me. Three women and a girl stop to offer directions, pointing me along the dirt path they have just trodden barefoot. It is only after I thank them and resume my hike that I realise the significance of the gnarled branches bundled heavily on their heads. Tuma Forest Reserve is being removed piece by piece.

All of Malawi's 70 forest reserves are under similar pressure. Together they protect 770,000ha of woodland, but the demand for firewood is insatiable and protection is often theoretical. Each year, the country loses around 50,000ha of indigenous trees.

Unchecked, the rampant deforestation will induce catastrophic erosion and could lead to the extinction of endemic species. It will also have an aesthetic impact, for Malawi's forest reserves encompass some of the most attractive scenery in Africa.

That is certainly true of Mount Mulanje, which rises in isolation in southern Malawi, a great, granite and syenite massif covering an area of 640km2. Hikers ascending to the top move from tropical plains, through temperate forest and grassland, to bare rock. They end up standing on the highest point in Central Africa (Sapitwa Peak, 3000m).

The massif is buttressed by stark, elephant-grey cliffs, while the gentler slopes are cloaked in native forest that harbours the Mulanje cedar. A few 300-year-old specimens of this endemic tree can still be found - 45m giants - but years of logging for timber have taken a heavy toll and the species is severely endangered.

Entry to Mulanje Forest Reserve is free, though there is a small charge for overnight use of the mountain huts. Guides and porters can be hired from Likabula Forest Station (unguided, it is easy to get hopelessly lost, especially when the weather closes in - as it often does).

30km south of the commercial city of Blantyre, Thyolo Mountain Forest Reserve is an excellent birdwatching venue and is home to the Thyolo alethe, an endangered ground bird confined to a few submontane forests in Malawi and Mozambique. The Green barbet and Green-headed oriole are also present. The forest reserves clustered immediately around Blantyre - Ndirande, Soche, Michiru, and Chiradzulu - are equally rewarding. The Thyolo alethe is often seen, along with occasional monkeys (Blue and Vervet), bushbuck and duiker.

Malawi's colonial administrators located their capital, Zomba, at the foot of the vast Zomba Plateau, which provided a cool refuge from the lowland heat. The plateau is now a 19,000ha forest reserve replete with pine plantations, trout dams and superb walking trails. A tortuous road takes you to the top, where the luxurious Ku Chawe Inn provides cliff-edge rooms with unrivalled views.

Accommodation is no longer the problem it used to be when visiting Malawi's forest reserves. Recently, many of the pretty basic government-run lodges have been privatised and upgraded. One such is Zomba Forest Lodge, which sits in a sleepy glade midway up the side of the plateau.

Another plateau, in the Northern Region, is the location of the country's largest forest reserve. Viphya was once rolling bushland, but was planted with pines to provide fodder for an ill-fated pulp mill. Africa's largest man-made forest, it sprawls along the edge of the Great Rift Valley.

The best accommodation for Viphya is at Luwawa Forest Lodge, from where it is possible to explore the woodland, or, more adventurously, to cycle down the Rift escarpment to the shores of Lake Malawi. Leopards have occasionally been seen during the descent.

Ntchisi Forest Reserve (north of the capital, Lilongwe) embraces a fine tract of montane evergreen trees. It is accessed by a testing dirt road. The unique flora, abundant birds and butterflies, and breathtaking scenery make the journey worthwhile. Accommodation is at Ntchisi Forest Reserve, built in the 1920s as a summer retreat for the District Commissioner of Nkhotakota.

Closer to Lilongwe, Dzalanyama Forest Reserve (the name means "place of meat") supports a variety of elusive game, including sable antelope and leopard. Dzalanyama Forest Lodge occupies a house that was originally built beside Lake Malawi, only to be moved here brick by brick in 1973.

Back at Tuma Reserve, which lies a 90-minute drive east of Lilongwe, I continue my hike, wending my way between high-grown maize gardens. It is hard to tell precisely where the reserve begins, for encroachment and illegal felling have frayed the boundary. But eventually I find myself walking in the shade of Brachystegia woodland. The sounds of village life cede to birdsong.

The heart of this 16,000ha reserve, which was gazetted in 1926, is a no-go area for farmers and their livestock due to the presence of the tsetse fly, which transmits bovine sleeping sickness. Without the tsetse, the reserve may well have been completely overrun by encroachers long ago.

Until the late 1980s, Tuma hosted significant herds of elephant, buffalo and several species of antelope, but numbers were whittled down by concerted poaching. By 1991, the elephant had vanished.

In 1996, the German-backed Wildlife Action Group, in conjunction with the Department of Forestry, initiated a rehabilitation project at Tuma. Within a few months, their scout patrols had recovered 1400 wire snares and filled in 39 pits dug by poachers to trap elephant and buffalo.

Countrywide, the National Forestry Programme will extend this good work. Underpinned by investment from the UK and UNDP, the Forestry Programme aims to strike a balance between supply and demand, making Malawi's forests genuinely sustainable.

Elephants returned to Tuma in 1999 - a heartening portent. After two hours of walking in shade, stopping occasionally to spot birds, I clamber onto a huge boulder and gain a spellbinding panorama. In the hazy, far-below distance, Lake Malawi glimmers.

But the best aspect of the view is nearer to hand, for I am gazing over a swathe of forest, green and unbroken.

Richard Newton is a professional travel writer who lives in England and Malawi.


Forestry reserves

Malawi has 5 National Parks, 4 game reserves and 70 forestry reserves covering a total of 43,300km2. The latter takes up an area of 7300km2. They are scattered throughout 23 of Malawi's 24 districts. No entry fees are charged to enter any of the forestry reserves.


Travelling to some remote reserves requires private transport as they are off the main bus routes. Transfers to most lodges are available from local operators. During the rains (November - April), access to some lodges is limited to 4x4, otherwise saloon vehicles are useable throughout the year.


13 reserves have accommodation facilities. These range from campsites to mountain huts, guest houses, self catering lodges and fully inclusive establishments. Some have been privatised and a few are still operating under forestry management. Camp sites are available at Sosola rest house (inside Mua-Livulezi reserve), Zomba Plateau. Free camping in any one of the forestry reserves is permitted with prior permission with the district forestry officer. Most leading Malawi tour operators will have full details of all facilities.


Generally the forestry-run facilities are basic. They are all self-catering with cooks provided and cost no more than US$6 per person per night. Privately owned establishments range from about US$12pppn for self catering (staff provided) to $55 for a double, on a bed and breakfast basis. Most lodges offer self-catering and provide basic utensils, crockery, etc. Many have refrigeration and all provide lighting of some sort. Some have a restaurant service.


Walking trails are the most popular activity and in Luwawa, Dzalanyama and Zomba mountain bikes are available for hire. As all but one are set within forests, they offer excellent birdwatching opportunities.

Published in Travel Africa Edition Seventeen: Autumn 2001.Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)

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The powdered root of the elephant root shrub contains a high proportion of tannin and has been used in East Africa to treat stomach ailments.

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