© A hide near a waterhole in Majete
By John Douglas & Richard Newton
Despite having the region's highest population density, Malawi is well endowed with protected areas. Over ten percent of its land surface is allocated into nine National Parks (NP) or Wildlife Reserves (WR), including the world's first freshwater park at Cape Maclear on Lake Malawi.
The distinction between parks and reserves is becoming increasingly blurred, although the original concept was for parks to be developed for tourism and reserves to be conservation areas. The driving forces behind the gazetting of these areas were two: hunting control and forest protection. The latter was, in part, to protect the country's water supply in the catchment areas.
Today, the parks and reserves are the responsibility of the Ministry of Tourism, Parks and Wildlife, but the earliest reserves were set up under colonial rule in the 1890s. The first, Elephant Marsh, where David Livingstone had reported vast herds of magnificent specimens, became an object lesson for the future: when protection was withdrawn all the elephants were slaughtered.
A feature of Malawi's current complement of parks and reserves is its variety of landscapes, topography and habitats. The unique montane grasslands of the whaleback plateau of Nyika NP contrast with the marshlands of Vwasa Wildlife Reserve (WR), the Brachystegia woodland of Majete WR and the flood plains of the river Shire at Liwonde NP. This variety, which reflects the country's incredible diversity within relatively tight borders, should have given Malawi a wonderful range of fauna and flora, but all is not as it should be.
True, the flora remains largely unspoilt and the birdlife is outstanding (Malawi boasts some 530 species). No one can visit Nyika in the wet season and not marvel at the carpets of over 400 species of orchid. Unfortunately, it's a different story with the mammals.
A bit of history
From independence (in 1964) to the mid-1990s, the parks and reserves suffered from gross neglect, mismanagement and underfunding. Even the modest park entry fees failed to find their way back into the funds needed for routine maintenance. Unsurprisingly in one of the world's poorest countries, poaching was rife and the penalties for the few who were caught were no deterrent. The legacy of this period is today's under-stocked parks and reserves, which struggle to increase or even maintain game numbers. None currently approaches its carrying capacity.
Dependent on overseas aid from Germany, Japan and the EU, among others, the position is beginning to stabilize and even improve. Since the privatisation of accommodation (now excellent in Nyika, Liwonde, Vwasa and Kasungu), management has improved and international consultants have been engaged. Game relocations, chiefly from South Africa and particularly into Liwonde, are building up stocks to a level at which Malawi can now claim good viewing, even if not yet on a scale to be found in the region's best parks. Rhino can now be seen, as well as increasing numbers of elephant and hippo, together with a range of antelope, including nyala.
Attractions of Malawi
What Malawi may lack in big game numbers is made up for by the opportunity to experience game in totally unspoilt surroundings. There are always the birds and the flowers, to say nothing of Lake Malawi's fish species - a greater number than any other freshwater lake in the world.
Time to dust off an overused cliché for another airing: Malawi truly is a land of contrasts. The astounding variety of its scenery is captured within its five national parks.
Lake Malawi National Park
To see the main attraction of Lake Malawi National Park you must get wet. With a mask and snorkel you can observe glittering shoals of endemic cichlids. And down in the sweltering south, Lengwe is an often-overlooked gem. At a waterhole amid mopane woodland, I have spent magical hours observing antelope: nyala, suni and kudu.
Known for variety of mammals, including Malawi's largest population of elephants. Also: buffalo, hippo, zebra, predators and several antelope, including puku. Over 200 bird species. 280km of roads with good viewing, several walking trails, a 10km guided bush hike. Several Stone and Iron Age sites; rock paintings. A luxury lodge and a tented camp with communal facilities, restaurant and pool. Budget accommodation in Kasungu town, 38km away.
Proclaimed 1980. Protects Nankhumba Peninsula, surrounding waters and nearby islands. The world's first, and Africa's finest, freshwater park. Classified by IUCN as an 'outstanding natural site'. Rocky shores, sandy beaches, sand dunes, swamps, reedbeds, wooded hillsides and offshore islands and reefs. A few baboons, monkeys and small buck on land - but rich birdlife, particularly waterbirds. Over 500 species of freshwater fish (95% endemic), including over 350 different multicoloured cichlids. Snorkelling is the top sport. An extensive array of water-based activities, boat cruises on the Lake and Shire River. Cape Maclear has many backpacker hostels, rest houses and campsites. Two upmarket hotels along the eastern shore.
Lengwe National Park
Created 1928, to protect a small population of nyala in their most northerly haunt. 887km2 set in the southern region along the Mozambican border.
Lies in the hot, arid, flood plains of the lower Shire Valley, overlooked by the Marangwe Mountains to the west. Surprisingly densely vegetated, with mopane and miombo woodlands and thick bushes interspersed with baobab and palm trees. Hyaenas, leopard, warthog, Samango monkey, nyala, buffalo and Livingstone's suni. Interesting birds, particularly shrikes, rollers, bee-eaters and the Yellow-spotted nicator. 83km of roads, with hides overlooking waterholes. Guided game and birdwatching walks. A permanent camp with chalets, huts and communal facilities.
Kasungu National Park
Established 1922. 2070km2 in Malawi's central band, on the Zambian border. Gently undulating hillsides bisected by several rivers; interspersed with seasonally flooded flats. Broken hills in the north. Miombo (brachystegia) woodland and ragged bush dominate hillsides. Rivers reed-fringed.
Known for variety of mammals, including Malawi's largest population of elephants. Also: buffalo, hippo, zebra, predators and several antelope, including puku. Over 200 bird species. 280km of roads with good viewing, several walking trails, a 10km guided bush hike. Several Stone and Iron Age sites; rock paintings. A luxury lodge and a tented camp with communal facilities, restaurant and pool. Budget accommodation in Kasungu town, 38km
Liwonde National Park
A hot and dusty reserve; established 1973, along the Shire River, to restore wildlife decimated by hunting. Restocked with assistance from South African National Parks.
Lake Malombe, 40km of the Shire River and its flood plains dominate the park. River fringed by raffia palms, papyrus beds and woodland. Inland, dry grasslands, dense mopane stands and baobab trees.
Nearly 2500 hippo and many crocodiles. About 800 elephant, a few lion, four types of antelope (notably Ansell's sable) and the odd Black rhino. Best known for its birds: nearly 400 of Malawi's 650 species, including the country's only population of Lilian's lovebirds. Guided walks and 97km of roads, but birdwatching and game-viewing best by boat. A semi-luxury, self-catering lodge with campsite. Liwonde has an upmarket tented camp and mid-range lodge.
Nyika National Park
Established 1965, in northern Malawi. The country's highest and largest NP (3225 km2). Encompasses the Nyika Plateau: wide plains and sweeping valleys encircled by steep escarpments. Cut by four large rivers with deep gorges and high waterfalls. Ferns, heather, wild flowers and juniper and pine plantations in the mountains. Below, miombo woodlands and high grass plains. 28 endemics among 200 orchid and protea species.
100 different mammals, including red and blue duiker and one of Africa's densest leopard populations. Among the 400 bird species are eight endemics. A vast network of walking paths, horseback and wilderness hiking trails (both 1-5 days), guided leopard-seeking night drives and trout fishing. Historical and archaeological sites. Chilly highland air and panoramas from the escarpment. A rest camp with luxury log cabins, chalets, youth hostel and campsite. Just across the Zambian border is a well-known private rest house.
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