Saving Mulanje cedar from extinction

DEPLETED – Mulanje Mountain top

At 50 metres, rarely the crown jewel of Mulanje Mountain proudly stands.

Endemic to Mulanje Mountain, Mulanje cedar was declared a national tree in 1984 by the country’s founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

But this tree which is supposed to be Malawi’s national pride is currently critically endangered and at a risk of becoming extinct in its natural habitat.


Reports estimate that the cedar forest cover has declined by 37 percent in the last 30 years; the main causes being illegal logging and fire.

Illegal logging has depleted the Mulanje cedar forest which dates back to the 1940s on Sombani and other clusters on Mulanje Mountain.

This is the reason we have found ourselves on this tour to the mountain where Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT) together with the Botanic Gardens Conservation International are implementing the “Save Our Cedar” campaign.


“We intend to plant close to 400,000 cedar seedlings by the end of this tree-planting season through this project which is being funded by the Darwin Initiative,” says MMCT’s Programmes Officer responsible for environmental education, awareness and communications Kondwani Chamwala.

According to Chamwala, the organisations have through the campaign involved communities surrounding Mulanje Mountain in taking care of cedar seedlings which are later replanted on the mountain.

So far, 10 community nurseries with about 15 members each group have been established.

“Through these community nurseries, we hope to bring back the lost cedar cover on the mountain, we are also working with members of these community nurseries to dispel all myths that have been rife in this part that the Mulanje cedar can never be planted by human beings, a myth that for a long time now has derailed efforts to replace the cedar on Mulanje Mountain,” Chamwala said.

There have been beliefs in the districts surrounding the Mulanje Mountain and that Mulanje cedar cannot be replanted by humans but recent research and practice have proven otherwise.

So we set off using Tinyade route which will lead us up to Thuchila cluster which lies at 2,003 metres above sea level to take part in the Mulanje cedar planting exercise.

The hiss of rivers, sounds of birds and scents of Mulanje Mountain’s diverse flora escort us as we make this four-hour journey up the mountain.

As we climb the mountain, it is apparent that human activity indeed has placed not only the Mulanje cedar but other plants as well under the threat of extinction.

The once cedar covered terrain is now bare.

Illegal loggers have also started cutting down the cedar at Thuchila which is considered one of the most protected areas on the mountain as it is guarded.

“These illegal loggers come in their large numbers and are usually heavily armed and ready to fight back if necessary, so the one guard available here [at Thuchila] is not enough to wade off any illegal loggers, what is needed here are guns,” said Lameck Chinomba, one of the volunteers working with the Forestry Department to protect the Mulanje cedar on the mountain.

Chinomba alleged that even when the illegal loggers are arrested, police have been lenient that the culprits are released just hours after arrest.

Though the forestry office in Phalombe is working hard to curb illegal logging, District Forestry Officer Ajibu Nliwasa concurred with Chinomba that lack of enough personnel, equipment and transport remains the greatest obstacle to combat the malpractice on Mulanje Mountain.

But Nliwasa said arrests and convictions have been made recently.

“Most of the times when the illegal loggers are taken to court, they are given fines which is not difficult for someone in this business [illegal logging] to pay because Mulanje cedar is on high demand as its timber fetches at least K9,000 per log,” he said.

In June 2016, MMCT together with various organisations launched the “Save Our Cedar” campaign.

Among others, the project gives incentives to the communities that are taking part in the replanting exercise.

Five-hundred thousand seedlings would be produced from 15 communal nurseries that have been established under the project.

The seedlings would then be replanted in places where the cedar has been depleted on Mulanje Mountain.

The Forestry Department produced a Cedar Management Plan which runs from 2014 – 2019 and prohibits logging of Mulanje cedar on the mountain for at least the next five years, and calls for a large-scale ecological restoration of the cedar.

The proposed five-year logging moratorium will cut off a vital source of income to local villagers who have been harvesting and selling the timber for over 100 years.

Previous attempts to restore cedar forests and to grow the species more widely have been limited by its poorly understood ecology, pathology and horticulture.

But despite all this, we went on top of the mountain, enjoyed the views, the singing of birds and drunk from the flesh streams that have not been disturbed by human activity for a millennia.

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