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Southern Africa: Southern Mal1awi into Mozambique

Dominating the surrounding countryside, Mount Mulanje is the highest point in South-Central Africa. The ecoregion forms part of the Afromontane archipelago-like regional center of endemism, and is extended here to include the biologically important Afroalpine and lowland forest areas. Floristically, the ecoregion shows low generic endemism and moderate levels of specific endemism, including 10 vertebrates and over 10 plants, including a species of cedar tree. The lowland forest has Guineo-Congolian (and eastern African coastal) affinities whereas the high-altitude forests of the ecoregion are largely Afromontane. This region is of great importance to human inhabitants: Mount Mulanje serves as an essential water catchment area for surrounding lowlands and tea and pine plantations that have replaced much of the original vegetation. Today, the remaining stands of Malawi cedar total less than 15 km2.

  • Scientific Code
  • Ecoregion Category
  • Size
    3,900 square miles
  • Status
  • Habitats

Location and General Description
The South Malawi Montane Forest-Grassland Mosaic is situated at the southern end of Malawi. It lies between 15° and 16° S latitude and is about 100 km south of Lake Malawi, to the southwest of the stagnant Lake Chilwa. The ecoregion is made up of Mount Mulanje and other mountains of lower altitude to the west and northwest of Mulanje. Mount Mulanje (35° 30’ E, 16° 00’ S) is the core area of the ecoregion and is the most prominent mountain feature in South-Central Africa (Chapman 1962). The ecoregion is surrounded by areas of low altitude, particularly to the south and to the east where an expansive, flat plain extends into Mozambique.

Mount Mulanje rises sharply and dramatically above the surrounding Phalombe Plain, which lies between 600 and 700 m (Dowsett-Lemaire 1988). The massif covers an area of 650 km2 and is comprised of high plateaus and basins lying about 2,000 m, incised by several deep ravines. The plateaus are surmounted by 20 rocky peaks, which generally reach about 2,500 m in altitude. One of these, Sapitwa Peak (3,200 m), is the highest point in South-Central Africa. To the north, Mchese Peak (2,289 m) is separated from the main mass of Mulanje by a broad saddle called the Fort Lister Gap, which is about 2 km wide and lies 340 m above the Phalombe Plain. To the west and north west of Mount Mulanje, across the Tuchila Plain, lies the Shire Highlands (Briggs 1996). The southern portion of these highlands is dominated by the Thyolo Mountain (1,462 m), which extends north and south in long ridges, and drops sharply to the Shire River in the west. The eastern slopes undulate gently down to the Tuchila and Ruo Rivers (Boeder 1982). Further north, in the vicinity of Blantyre and Limbe, there is a group of peaks including the Michuru and Chiradzulu Mountains. At the northern end of the Shire highlands, to the north west of Mulanje, lies the extensive Zomba Plateau. This Plateau lies at an average altitude of 1,600 m and has many peaks, such as Chagwa, Nawimbe and Mulunguzi, which range between 1,761 m and 2,018 m in elevation (Briggs 1996). While the Shire Highlands and its peaks are conspicuous, they only emphasize the magnitude of Mulanje, which dominates the landscape of the ecoregion.

Mount Mulanje consists of a cluster of coalescing plutonic intrusions of syenite, quartz-syenite and granite, which are uplifted and faulted (Chapman 1991). The rock is approximately 130 million years old and has gradually been exposed as the softer rock around it has eroded away. Bauxite deposits occur on the western side of the mountain, more especially on the Lichenya Plateau. The soils of Mount Mulanje are similar to those found in the fynbos regions of the southern Cape. Chapman and White (1970) examined a soil profile from Mount Mulanje and classified the soils as humic ferrisols. They contain a high silt fraction, are acidic (pH 4.2 – 4.9) and have a low cation exchange capacity. Soil depth varies and is probably greatest in ravines and basins and shallowest on peaks, where sheets of granite lie near or at the surface. Information on the geology and soils of other mountains in this ecoregion is scarce.

The ecoregion has a moderate, tropical highland climate (Chapman 1991). It experiences a single, austral summer rainy season, extending from November to April. During this season rain can be expected most days, often in the form of short thunderstorms. The remainder of the year is drier, but is alleviated by maritime air from the Mozambique Channel which brings spells of mist, drizzle and rain to the areas facing southeast (termed Chiperone weather). Such weather can occur any time from May to August and lasts a week or more. The quantity of rainfall is variable throughout the ecoregion, particularly on Mount Mulanje, largely due to rainshadow effects. The average annual rainfall at the tea estates at the southern foot of Mount Mulanje (650 m) is 1,626 mm, with 16 percent falling in the dry season. On the Mountain (on the Lichenya Plateau at 1875 m) the average increases to 2,859 mm, with 19 percent falling in winter. On the western side of the mountain the rainfall is considerably lower, with very small amounts falling during the dry winter months.

Average maximum temperatures within the ecoregion are 24°C in summer and 12°C in winter. At moderate altitudes, minimum temperatures are 15°C and 9°C in summer and winter respectively. At higher altitudes temperatures drop to –3°C in winter and frosts are common (Chapman and White 1970). The period from September to the start of the rains is the hottest season, with temperatures regularly reaching above 30°C. Humidity levels are low during this season. Temperatures during the austral winter months are cool to moderate and increase towards spring (September). During Chiperone weather, with a southeast wind and driving rain, temperatures drop dramatically and on rare occasions snow has been reported on Sapitwa Peak (Mount Mulanje). During the wet season the temperatures are warm and the air is humid.

Mists are prevalent on the heights of the mountains all year round, except during the driest period in September/October. Mists are essential to forest survival; they condense in the crowns of trees, which continue to drip after the sky has cleared, keeping the forest floors damp for weeks after the ground outside the forests has become dry.

The two major rivers flowing through this ecoregion are the Luchenza and Ruo. The Luchenza River has its source in the northern portion of the Shire Highlands and flows south, bisecting the ecoregion. The Ruo River has its source in the valley that divides Mulanje into unequal western and eastern lobes (Chapman 1962), and from there it flows south to the Shire River which joins the Zambezi River in Mozambique and flows into the Indian Ocean.

Mount Mulanje is a major catchment area and is the source of all rivers in the Mulanje District, which supply clean drinking water to the people and the tea estates. Most of the valleys on Mount Mulanje are abruptly truncated upon reaching the sides of the massif. The rivers draining these valleys descend in fine waterfalls, which are a conspicuous feature of the massif. The Ruo River is the most impressive as its large valley ends abruptly and the river descends in a spectacular waterfall. The Zomba Plateau in the north of the ecoregion is the catchment area for the Mulunguzi River, which flows over the Mandala Falls.

The Thyolo Mountain, to the south west of the ecoregion, is a major tea producing area, and tea plantations dominate its gently undulating eastern slopes. These slopes were once covered in lowland rainforest with mahogany (Khaya anthotheca), Chrysophyllum gorungosanum, Prunus africana, Suregada procera and Xymalos monospora as dominant trees. Lowland rainforest is rare in Malawi, occurring only on Thyolo and on Mount Mulanje. The Chiradzulu Mountain, 15 km north east of Blantyre, supports a small remnant (200 ha) of Afromontane forest above the 1500 m contour. Pine and eucalyptus plantations dominate the Zomba Plateau, whose indigenous vegetation is highly fragmented. Patches of Brachystegia woodland remain on the lower slopes of this Plateau, and at higher altitudes remnants of mid-altitude and Afromontane forests are found in ravines and gorges.

The vegetation of Mount Mulanje has been studied in greater detail than that of other mountains in the ecoregion (Brass 1953; Chapman 1962, Dowsett-Lemaire 1988; Dowsett-Lemaire 1990). Five indigenous vegetation types occur on Mulanje, namely miombo woodland, lowland forest, Afromontane/Widdringtonia (endemic Malawi cedar) forest, plateau grassland and the high altitude vegetation of the peaks (Chapman 1962).

The southern and southeastern slopes of Mulanje were, until recently, vegetated by lowland rainforest dominated by Newtonia buchananii and Khaya anthotheca (Chapman 1991). Remnants of this lowland rainforest occur along streams on the lower slopes and on the tea estates at the foot of the mountain. The plateaus of Mulanje are dominated by tussock grasslands. Small groups of trees including Ilex mitis, Philippa benguelensis and Syzygium cordatum are found on the grasslands clumped among large boulders. The endemic Helichrysum whyteanum, with its showy silver and pink bracts, becomes conspicuous during winter. Streams flowing through the grasslands are fringed with tree ferns (Cyathea dregei) and bamboo (Arundinaria sp.). At higher altitudes the vegetation becomes a heathland similar to those found on the Cape Mountains in South Africa. Mulanje is the only mountain in the ecoregion high enough to support heathland vegetation. Among the species that become prevalent at higher altitude are the endemic Erica milanjiana, Phylica tropica and Aloe arborescens (up to 5m tall). Grasses include large tussocks of Festuca costata and Danthonia davyi interspersed with cushions of Eragrostis volkensii and the extraordinary grass Alloeochaete oreogena, a Mulanje endemic up to 3 m tall with a tree trunk-like structure.

Between 900 m and 1,350 m mid-elevation forest is found. This forest has a low canopy and is hung with many lichens, mosses and epiphytes. Dominant canopy trees are Newtonia buchananni, associated with Albizia adianthifolia, Funtumia africana and Chrysophyllum gorungosanum. The largest remaining block of the mid-elevation forest is found at Chisongole, on the south east of the mountain.

At higher altitudes (over 1,600 m) Afromontane/Widdringtonia forests are found in gorges and ravines, where they are sheltered from dry winds and fire, particularly on the drier western and northern slopes. These forests are taller than the mid-elevation forests, and Olea capensis and the Mulanje cedar (Widdringtonia whytei) are the most common emergent trees. Pauw and Linder (1997) concluded that there are in fact two species of Mulanje cedar on Mount Mulanje, namely Widdringtonia nodiflora and Widdringtonia whytei. W. nodiflora is a multi-stemmed shrub with a swollen underground tuber that occurs on the edges of the forest and survives fires by resprouting. This species is widely distributed throughout South-Central Africa. On the other hand W. whytei is restricted to the fire-protected valleys on Mount Mulanje. It grows up to 40 m tall and persists as a broad-crowned canopy tree for hundreds of years. It has been declared Malawi’s National Tree (Chapman 1995). Currently, the cedar forests occur as small fragments on the mountain with a total area of about 14.6 km2 (Pauw 1998). Other important canopy trees present at high elevations include Podocarpus latifolius, Ekebergia capensis, Cassipourea malosana and Rapanea melanophloeos. The high-elevation forests have an abundance of epiphytic orchids and ferns, ground ferns and tree-growing club mosses. Much of the high-elevation forest is fragmented in widely distributed patches. The largest remaining block is on Lichenya (1,850 m) on the south west of Mulanje.

It is notable that many species reach their northernmost limit on Mount Mulanje, where they grow unusually large. Diospyros natalensis, for example, is at its northernmost limit on Mulanje, where it is a shapely tree up to 25 m tall. Further south it is a straggling, 4 m high shrub (Chapman 1990). Other examples of gigantism as adaptation to montane environment are Euclea divinorum (25 m) and Haplocoelum foliosum (27 m), both of which reach a greater height on Mulanje than elsewhere in their range (Chapman 1991).

Biodiversity Features
The ecoregion forms part of the Afromontane archipelago-like regional center of endemism of White (1983). This center of endemism shows only moderate generic endemism and has only three endemic families, the unispecific Barbeyaceae and Cornaceae and the unigeneric Oliniaceae. In contrast, it has a high level of specific endemism with the majority of species in the region being endemic to it (Werger 1978). Chorological analysis of the trees and shrubs of Mulanje showed that the proportion of Afromontane elements increases from 22 percent in lowland forest, to 44 percent in mid-elevation forest and to 76 percent in the Afromontane forest (Dowsett-Lemaire 1988). The lowland forest has Guineo-Congolian affinities whereas the high-elevation forests of the ecoregion are largely Afromontane. The ecoregion itself has a relatively low level of specific endemism when compared to other Afromontane forest islands in the region, but has a high level of species richness (Werger 1978; WWF and IUCN 1994).

The highest rate of endemism in the fauna of the ecoregion is found in the reptiles and amphibians. Two dwarf chameleons, Chamaeleo mlanjensis and Rhampholeon platyceps, are strictly endemic to Mount Mulanje, as are two geckos (Lygodactylus bonsi and L. rex), one skink (Proscelotes mlangensis) and one lizard (Platysaurus michelli). A further nine species of reptile are regarded as near endemic to the ecoregion, including the Mozambique wolf snake (Lycophidion acutirostre) and the Angola dwarf gecko (Lygodactylus angularis). Amongst the amphibians, one frog subspecies (Rana johnstoni johnstoni), a squeaker frog (Arthroleptis francei) and a ridged frog (Ptychadena broadleyi) are strictly endemic to the ecoregion. The Rana sp, and the squeaker frog are restricted to Mount Mulanje, while the ridged frog is found on Mulanje and on the Zomba Plateau (Chapman 1990).

All of the forested mountains in this ecoregion are considered important areas for bird conservation (Strattersfield et al. 1998; Collar and Stuart 1988), and support a number of threatened bird species (Hilton-Taylor 2000; Dowsett-Lemaire 1989). The endangered Thyolo alethe (Alethe choloensis, EN) is endemic to the forests of this ecoregion and is mainly found in the ground stratum of the mid-altitude forests (Keith et al. 1982). Other threatened forest bird species occurring are the spotted ground thrush (Zoothera guttata, EN) and the white-winged apalis (Apalis chariessa, VU) (Hilton-Taylor 2000). Less rare, but still notable bird species that occur are the olive-flanked robin-chat (Cossypha anomala macclounii), moustached green tinker bird (Pogoniulus leucomystax), and the green headed oriole (Oriolus chlorocephalus).

A subspecies of the olive-flanked robin-chat (Cossypha anomala macclouniei) is endemic to Mount Mulanje. The grasslands are less important ornithologically. The significant grassland birds are mainly raptors, such as the black and crowned eagles (Aquila verreauxii, Stephanoaetus coronatus) and the lanner and peregrine falcons (Falco biarmicus, F. peregrinus). The blue swallow (Hirundo atrocaerulea,VU)) and the scarce swift (Schoutedenapus myoptilus) are other notable grassland species, the first of which is globally threatened (Hilton-Taylor 2000).

The only near-endemic mammal occurring in the lower elevations of the ecoregion is the greater hamster-rat (Beamys major), which is Locally Rare (Hilton-Taylor 2000).

All larger mammals in the ecoregion are under continuous threat from hunting (Chapman 1991). The vast herds of large mammals, such as eland (Taurotragus oryx) and sable (Hippotragus niger), that once roamed the foothills of this ecoregion are long gone. The only antelopes to survive are species such as bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus), red duiker (Cephalophus natalensis) and blue duiker (Cephalophus monticola), which live hidden in dense vegetation. Klipspringer (Oreotragus oreotragus) has also survived hunting pressure because it occupies inaccessible, high, rocky slopes. Rock hyraxes are also common on these rocky slopes. Two narrowly distributed subspecies of rock hyrax were first described from Mount Mulanje; these are (Heterohyrax brucei manningi) and (Procavia capensis johnstoni).

Hamadryas baboons (Papio hamadryas) are common in the woodlands throughout the ecoregion and both the blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis) and the vervet monkey (Chlorocebus aethiops) occur in the forests. A subspecies of blue monkey (Cercopithecus mitis nyasae) is near endemic to the ecoregion, with Mount Mulanje as its type locality.

These mammals are the main prey for the few leopards (Panthera pardus) that still survive in the mountains of the ecoregion. Besides leopard, other smaller predators include the small spotted genet (Genetta genetta), serval (Felis serval) and the African civet (Civettictis civetta). Spotted hyaena (Crocuta crocuta) is also found in the ecoregion.

Current Status
The current status of conservation within the ecoregion is poor (Chapman 1990; Chapman 1991; Sakai 1989). The conservation areas, classified as forest reserves, have inadequate controls and are managed by the Department of Forestry. The reserves are generally dominated by pine and eucalyptus plantations, with remnant fragments of indigenous vegetation remaining in more inaccessible areas.

The Thyolo Forest Reserve, situated on the Thyolo Mountain to the southwest of the ecoregion, conserves the largest remaining patch of lowland rainforest. The mountain is otherwise dominated by tea plantations (Briggs 1996). The Michiru Mountain Conservation area is situated north west of Blantyre, covers 50 km2 of Michiru Mountain and serves as a center for environmental education, with areas set aside for forestry and agriculture. A small area contains indigenous woodland with patches of forest in the ravines (Stuart and Stuart 1992). The Chiradzulu Forest Reserve, 15 km north of Blantyre, supports a small remnant of forest (200 ha) above the 1,500 m contour. To the north lies the Zomba Plateau Forest Reserve. This is Malawi’s oldest forest reserve (gazetted in 1913), and is largely covered in plantations. Small fragmented patches of forest and miombo woodland remain (Stuart and Stuart 1992). The Mount Mulanje forest reserve was formally gazetted a forest reserve in 1927, more to ensure the Forestry Department permanent exploitation rights for cedar than for conservation of the mountain (Chapman 1990). The reserve is under constant threat from the dense population surrounding it and its boundary has been adjusted a number of times due to encroachment by cultivators on the lower slopes. In November 2000 Mount Mulanje was approved as a new biosphere reserve. A biosphere reserve is an internationally recognized area promoting solutions to reconcile the conservation of biodiversity with sustainable use.

Types and Severity of Threats
Forestry and agriculture are the two major threats to the conservation of the ecoregion. Large areas throughout the ecoregion have been turned over to pine and eucalyptus plantations. Nearly all of the indigenous vegetation on the Zomba Plateau has been supplanted by Mexican pine (Verboom 1992). The Thyolo and Mulanje districts are major tea producing areas and the natural vegetation on the south eastern slopes of these mountains has been replaced by extensive tea plantations. Tea was first planted on the slopes of Mount Mulanje in 1891 and then on Mount Thyolo in 1933. Until the mid 1960’s this ecoregion was the most extensive area of tea under cultivation anywhere in Africa (Boeder 1988).

Annual food crops are also planted on the rain-facing southern and southeastern slopes. In the early 1980’s, hundreds of hectares of lowland rainforest were destroyed on the southern slopes of Mulanje to grow maize (Chapman 1991). Crop fields continue to extend up the slopes of Mulanje today (above the Forest Reserve boundary) and repeated efforts by the forestry department to evict the encroachers have failed. The extensive, forested slope below Manene peak (2,650 m) is constantly being encroached upon, the situation compounded by a fast expanding population, and in the past by an influx of Mozambican refugees. The drier western and northern slopes of Mount Mulanje have been impacted to a lesser degree, largely due to the absence of tea plantations. However, the vegetation is still somewhat degraded, mainly by woodcutters. Other plants such as bamboo, thatching grass and Raphia palm are also harvested from these lower slopes. The destruction of the indigenous vegetation of Mount Mulanje had serious implications in March 1991 when heavy rains caused an avalanche on Machete Mountain, killing 500 people. This avalanche could have been less horrific had the forests on the lower slopes of Machese been intact (Chapman 1991).

The Mulanje cedar, Widdringtonia whytei, is under serious threat from over exploitation. Exploitation of this tree began in about 1900, under the control of the Department of Forestry. In 1927 much of Mulanje was gazetted as a forest reserve, but cedar felling continued. Efforts were made to replant cedar stands, but these stands, which were developing well, succumbed to fire. No further attempt has been made to reestablish cedar on the mountain despite the economic incentive (cedar has become a high-priced wood) and the fact that Malawi has adopted the cedar as its national tree (Chapman 1991). A plan to replant cedar in the Chambe Basin in 1960 failed to materialize and the area has now become a pine plantation (Chapman 1990). High fire frequency on the mountain resulted in a large number of cedar trees being killed and as a result, the felling of living trees was made illegal. However, this has not stopped the felling and some of the finest cedar stands have been cut since this legislation was put into place. It has also been suggested that this legislation has encouraged arson to ensure supplies of exploitable (burnt dead) trees (Chapman 1991). Currently, the cedar forests are greatly diminished, occurring as small fragments with a total area of about 14,6 km2 (Chapman 1995).

Another serious threat to the ecoregion is the uncontrolled invasion by the exotic Himalayan raspberry (Rubus ellipticus) and the Mexican pine (Pinus patula) (Verboom 1992). These invaders have reached every corner of the ecoregion. A successful pine eradication program was carried out on Mount Mulanje between 1987 and 1988, leaving only two areas of the mountain to be cleared. This work was however not followed up and the pines have re-appeared, with Machese Peak the only area not invaded (Chapman 1991). The eradication effort was useful in that it proved the feasibility of controlling the pine invasion. The Himalayan raspberry, on the other hand, is firmly established and extremely difficult to eradicate. This vigorous bush, which grows up to 6 m high, was first recorded 60 years ago (Chapman 1991).

Hunting for food and skins is putting pressure on the wildlife of the ecoregion. Hunting parties set traps and wire snares throughout the mountains and the forests of Mount Mulanje are beset with snares. The poaching parties are largely responsible for the many fires that occur towards the end of the dry season (Chapman 1990). The hunting of small mammals is also indirectly threatening the survival of predators (e.g. leopard) through competition for food. Direct hunting of predators (for their skins) has also been reported.

Bauxite deposits discovered on Mount Mulanje in 1924 contain at least 20 million tons of bauxite. The possible exploitation of this resource remains a serious threat to the mountain (Chapman 1991).

Justification of Ecoregion Delineation
The ecoregion delineation follows the vegetation map of White (1983) that outlines Mount Mulanje, Thyolo, Shire and Chiradzulu mountains within the larger ‘undifferentiated montane vegetation’ and ‘altimontane vegetation’ units. The ecoregion ranges from c.600 m to over 3000 m altitude to capture the transitions between lower and higher elevation fauna. The ecoregion is centered on Mount Mulanje, with a number of endemic species shared with other mountains within this ecoregion. It is distinguished as a Center of Plant Diversity (WWF and IUCN 1994) and as part of a larger Endemic Bird Area (Stattersfield et al. 1998).

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Chapman, J.D. 1962. The vegetation of the Mlanje Mountains of Nyasaland. The Government Printer, Zomba, Malawi.

Chapman, J.D. 1990. Mount Mulanje, Malawi: a plea for its future. A publication of the World Wildlife Fund.

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Sakai, I. 1989. A report on the Mulanje Cedar resources and the present crisis. Forestry Research Record No. 65. F.R.I.M., Zomba.

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Stattersfield, A. J., M. J. Crosby, A. J. Long, and D. C. Wege. 1998. Endemic Bird Areas of the World. Priorities for biodiversity conservation. BirdLife Conservation Series No. 7. BirdLife International, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

Verboom, G.A. 1992. A Report on the Invasive Status of Pinus patula on Mount Mulanje, Malawi. Honours Thesis. University of Cape Town.

Werger, M.J.A. 1978. Biogeography and Ecology of Southern Africa. Junk, The Hague.

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WWF and IUCN, 1994. Centres of plant diversity. A guide and strategy for their conservation. Volume 1. Europe, Africa, South West Asia and the Middle East. IUCN Publications Unit, Cambridge, U.K.

Prepared by: Amy Spriggs
Reviewed by: In progress


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