Chapter 7: Biological Diversity

 Bilogical Diversity

 7.0 Introduction

Biological diversity refers to the variety and variability of living organism (plants, animals and microorganisms) found in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Biodiversity is described at the genetic (variability between and within a species), species and ecosystems levels. Forestry and fisheries have been adequately covered in Chapters 4 and 5; this chapter will dwell mainly on wildlife, genetic diversity of crops and livestock.

7.0.1 Terrestrial ecosystems in Malawi.

Malawi is bio-geographically very varied. The variation has resulted in a wide diversity of terrestrial habitats which, in turn, are home to a huge diversity of terrestrial plants and animals (Box 7.1)

The most biologically diverse areas In Me country are the highlands, such as Nyika Plateau, which support large patches of evergreen forest and high altitude grassland, and Mount Mulanje which represents the largest area of montane forest. These ecosystems are characterized by high rates of endemism (Table 7.1).

While customary land areas are rich in biodiversity, most of the terrestrial biodiversity in Malawi occur as wildlife, mainly in protected and ungazetted non-protected lands (Map 7.1). These areas cover an area of about 1,927,600 ha. (approximately 21% of the country) falling into national parks, wildlife reserves and forest reserves. There are five national parks and four wildlife reserves in the country (Table 7.2). About 20% of the country territory is covered by wetlands which provide a wide range of habitats for aquatic or semi-aquatic biodiversity.

There is a wide range of aquatic ecosystems in Malawi, including five lakes (Malawi, Chilwa, Malombe, Chiuta, and Kazuni), numerous rivers (Shire, Bua, Dwangwa, Linthipe, Ruo, Songwe, and the North and the South Rukuru), streams, marshes and swamps, dams and ponds, and temporary pools.

These water bodies hold a huge diversity of fish fauna and other aquatic fauna and flora. Lake Malawi, with an estimated 1000 fish species, contains the greatest diversity of fish species in the world. It is home to many endemic fish species (see Chapter 5).

A good example is Cape Maclear, which has been declared an underwater National Park by the Malawi Government. Another protected aquatic community is the part of the Shire river which is adjacent to Liwonde National Parks.

(a) Crop diversity The genetic diversity of crop landraces is the key component of the agricultural production system. In Malawi where food security and economic development depend heavily on agriculture, genetic variability of crops provides the biological basis for the country's food security and support to the livelihood of the majority of Malawians. These resources serve as the plant breeder's most important raw materials in their breeding programmes and the farmers' most essential input. Table7.4 shows list of indigenous and adapted crop species found in the country.

(b) Diversity of domesticated animals Domesticated animals and birds commonly referred to as livestock form a major component of Malawi's biological diversity. These animal genetic resources (AnGR) are extremely important to the social-cultural and economic viability of the country, as a source of meat, milk, manure, fuel, skins and eggs. Some of these AnGR e.g. sheep, goats and pigeons, are used for medicinal purposes.
  7.1 State of the biodiversity in Malawi

The rich biodiversity in Malawi is under increasing pressure mainly from continued growth in population and poverty. Deforestation, disturbance and destruction of ecosystems and landscapes, and the associated loss of habitats have led to declining biodiversity throughout the country.

7.1.1 State of fauna in Malawi

Data on animals in Malawi has not been updated recently. It is estimated that there are about 4,000 species of wild animals in the country of which about 1,500 are vertebrates. It is further estimated that 163 species of the vertebrates are mammals, 54 are amphibians, 92 are reptiles and 620 are birds (DREA, 1994).


The large game animals are perhaps the most popular of the vertebrates in Malawi. Intensive illegal off-take has resulted in rapid decline of the populations of most of the big mammals (Figs. 7.1-7.4) with most of the species confined to protected areas. The largest group of the big mammals that occur in Malawi are ungulates and eighteen of these species are threatened (Table 7.3).

Other mammals that are threatened include: 

  1. the blue monkey (Cercopithecus albogularis) which occurs as three sub-species: moloneyi, francescae, and nyasae); 
  2. the chequered elephant-shrew, sub-species Rhynchocyon cirnei hendersoni (which is limited to the forests on the eastem side of the Nyika plateau), and 
  3. two hyrax sub-species Procavia capensis johnstoni, and Heterohyrax brucci manningi, which are restricted to southern areas.

There are five species of birds that are threatened in Malawi. The wattled crane has declined greatly, and now only breeds in Kasungu and Nyika National Parks. The east coast Akalat occurs in and around forests in Nkhata Bay District, including the lake side forests. Deforestation poses a threat to this species. The remaining three threatened species occur in the small forest patches, east of the Rift Valley. These are Thyolo Alethe, which is nearly endemic to Malawi (with two populations in Mozambique). The Malawi population of this bird is about 1500 pairs, distributed in thirteen sites with 1000 pairs in Mulanje, 200 on Thyolo and 300 elsewhere (Stuart, Adams & Jenkins, 1990). The white-winged Apalis, which is rare, comprising of about 100 pairs on nine sites. The Spotted Ground-thrush is particularly rare, with only 30-40 pairs in four sites at Soche, Thyolo, Lisau and Mulanje. Deforestation threatens the continued survival of these species. Lake Chilwa is an important site for wetland birds and migratory waders. However, unsustainable land use may have negative impacts on the these species.


There are a lot of reptile species in Malawi. Notable among these is the crocodile whose population is on the decline (Fig. 7.3). The demise of crocodile populations in many parts of the country is mainly due to conflicts with the people who use the same habitats. However, despite the decline, crocodiles are widely spread with reasonable populations in the Shire River.

Other reptile species that are threatened include Chamaeleo muelleri endemic to the Shire Highlands, Chameleo mlanjensis and Rhampholeon elatyceps endemic to Mulanje, Platysaurus mitchelli (lizard) and the Gecko (Lygodactylus rex) which are also endemic to Mulanje.


Twelve threatened species occur mainly in the highlands. There are four endemics; Phrynobatrachus astewartue in Rumphi, near Nyika Plateau; Hyperolius mertensi on Nyika Plateau; Ptychadena broadleyi in Mount Mulanje and Zomba; and Arthroleptis francei in Mount Mulanje. All four species are threatened. The other threatened species on Mount Mulanje is Scolecomorphus kirkii. Habitat destruction is the main worry for the survival of these amphibians.

Table 7.3 lists of the some big mammals of Malawi showing the areas in which they are found and the status of the populations


Invertebrates (insects, earthworms etc.) are the most abundant but least studied and understood group of animals.

7.1.2 State of flora in Malawi

Malawi's wild plant diversity is found in protected areas like forest reserves, national parks and wildlife reserves; on customary land, in sacred sites, graveyards, special sites of scientific interest and on private estate land. The country's flora comprises of flowering plants (angiosperms), non-flowering plants (gymnosperms), ferns (pteridophytes), mosses (bryophytes), bowa (macrofungi), lichens and algae. By 1997, 6105 plant species had been described in Malawi of which 69 are endemics (NHBG, 1997). More plants are yet to be described. Endemism is particularly high in the highlands (especially Mulanje Mountain). As with fauna, most of the wild flora are found in protected areas.

7.1.3 Domesticated Fauna and Flora

Genetic diversity of crop and animal populations is closely linked to the ability of the agricultural production system of the local farmers to survive the vagaries of diseases and droughts which affect farmed animals and plants The bulk of these are imported hence exotic

Domesticated Flora

There is a huge diversity of domesticated flora in Malawi This is mainly because crops form the bulk of Malawi's economy.

(a) Plant genetic resources
In order to increase agricultural production to meet food security and economic development requirements of the country, higher and better yielding modem varieties of maize, groundnuts, and sorghum for example, have been developed and planted. Table 7.4 shows that many hybrids and improved varieties of almost all the crops grown in the country have been introduced and are being grown by smallholder farmers. However, the introduction of the modem crop varieties has resulted in displacement of the crop landraces upon which plant breeding depends.

Domesticated fauna

The number of domesticated fauna is relatively small compared to domesticated flora. Among the domesticated fauna are cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, guinea pigs, chicken, ducks, turkeys and guinea fowls.
  7.2 Pressure indicators

7.2.1 High human population growth

Human population increase (Chapter 2) is exerting an enormous pressure on biodiversity in both protected and unprotected areas. This can be seen from the degree of agricultural expansion (Chapter 3) and the declining average landholding sizes which have forced many farmers to cultivate in marginal or fragile land. These pressures have resulted in the loss of biodiversity in many habitats in Malawi.

This pressure has been increasing in the majority of protected areas where there is high population density, and landholding sizes are less than 0.50 ha (Table 7.5). This is evident in Majete, Mwabvi and Vwaza Wildlife Reserves and the eastern side of Nyika National Park (Table 7.6). 

7.2.2. Extensive agricultural expansion

The dependence of Malawi's economy on agriculture, as a means of boosting economic development, has been frustrated by many constraints, amongst which are increases in human population, drought and poor productivity.

Consequently, extensive agriculture dominates as a means for increasing agricultural production. This has had a negative impact on wildlife biodiversity through loss of habitats and ecosystems.

7.2.3. Liberalisation of crop production and marketing

Prior to the 1992/93 growing season, smallholder farmers (who comprise more than 80% of Malawi's population) were by law not allowed to grow certain cash crops such as flue-cured and burley tobacco, tea and sugar.

Estate farmers, who are a very small percentage of the country's population, were allowed to grow these cash crops. Smallholder farmers were only allowed to grow food crops such as maize, beans, groundnuts, root crops and rice. However, they were also allowed to grow cotton, sun and fire-cured tobacco which they sold mainly to ADMARC (Agricultural Development and Marketing Co-operation). One major advantage of the legislation in terms of survival of crop landraces was that smallholder farmers could manage to grow the landraces, though on declining scale, along side higher and better yielding modern crop varieties. The landraces were a survival mechanism for farmers in case of failure of modern varieties a particular year. The liberalisation of burley tobacco growing in 1993/94 has resulted in serious reduction of hectarage of food crops like maize, beans, rice, sorghum, and root and tubers.

Loss of plant species diversity 
Biological diversity in Malawi is mainly affected by agricultural expansion and encroachment into protected areas such as national parks, wildlife reserves and forest reserves for crop production as well a livestock grazing. This trend is likely to continue as the human population in Malawi increases.

Loss of animal species diversity
Maintenance of a viable animal population can be achieved if the genetic diversity within the population is maintained at a sufficient level to guard against inbreeding by ensuring that the population of a species can be kept above a minimum critical size.

Populations of some species of animals have disappeared in certain areas of Malawi or from the country altogether. The rhino (chipembere) for example, which used to exist in Kasungu National Park and Mwabvi Wildlife Reserve is now extinct in these areas. The elephant has been exterminated in Majete Wildlife Reserve due to illegal hunting. Illegal off-take of elephants has also been rampant in Kasungu National Park, Vwaza Wildlife Reserve and various forest reserves. Most of the animals that used to occur in customary forests have disappeared. This is also the trend in forest reserves where animals are not well protected.

7.2.4 Poverty

Although about 80% of the people in Malawi live in the rural areas and are dependent on agriculture, the small landholdings (less than 0.5 ha.) cannot support their livelihoods (see Tables 7.5 and 7.6).

Consequently, these people occasionally engage in illegal hunting of wildlife resources to supplement their incomes and food. The major threat comes from commercial illegal hunters though.

7.2.5 Influences from external trade of biological resources.

The demand for some biological resources, such as rhino and elephant trophies has had a significant negative impact on these species in Malawi. Trade in ornamental fish (mostly in the endemic mbuna rock dwelling cichlids, is also on the increase with more than 50,000 fish exported in 1996 (Fig. 7.4)

7.2.6 Uncontrolled export of the indigenous germplasm

A lot of the country's indigenous germplasm are collected for various uses outside Malawi, most of which are smuggled out without government interference although policy and legislation guarding against illegal collection of the country's germplasm exists. There is no record of most of the germplasm exported from Malawi.

7.2.7 Introduction of exotic species

Many domesticated and wild species have been introduced to Malawi. However, the impact of these introduced species on the diversity of indigenous species has not been assessed. The water hyacinth has had tremendous negative effect on the aquatic ecosystems in Malawi since it was introduced, presumably as an ornamental plant. Its effect on biodiversity is yet to be fully assessed.
  7.3 Response indicators

In response to the environmental pressures affecting Malawi's biodiversity, the following measures have been put in place.

7.3.1 Family planning programmes

These are carried out throughout Malawi, among other things, aimed at reducing the rate of population growth to reduce pressure on natural resources and biodiversity.

7.3.2 Income generating activities

In general terms, it can be said that a very limited number of significant income generating activities are implemented in areas adjacent to wildlife protected areas. The Department of National Parks and Wildlife has introduced a number of wildlife-based enterprises in and around some of the wildlife-protected areas (Box 7.2). The introduction of sustainable use of the protected wildlife resources inside parks and reserves will encourage local communities to conserve the resources for future generations.

Guinea fowl farming is another form of income generating activities that has been introduced by the communities around national parks and wildlife reserves. By 1993, about 146 families were raising guinea fowls (Munthali, 1993).

7.3.3 Conservation of biological resources

A National gene bank:
To guard against loss of Malawi's plant resources and realizing the importance of genetic diversity of crop landraces in agriculture, the government has established a gene bank at Chitedze Research Station. The Malawi Plant Genetic Resources Centre (MPGRC), as it is called, is responsible for the collection, documentation and preservation of Malawi's plant germplasm (Table 7.7).

There is need to register and preserve samples of the germplasm being exported from Malawi, as well as germplasm that is lost as a result of unsustainable harvest and loss of habitat. Samples of three species of wild rice, Oryza barihii. Oryza longistaminata and Oryza panctata have been collected and conserved.

For other groups, in situ conservation, through the protected areas system (see Map 7.1) is the principal means of conserving them. In-situ conservation of biodiversity of Malawi's indigenous and threatened unique biodiversity has been highlighted as one of the strategic options under the Sustainable Environmental Management sub-issue of the Vision 2020.

Genetic Resources Committee:
To guide against loss of Malawi's biological resources through either unsustainable or illegal collection and export of the resource from foreign collectors and/or researchers, the National Research Council of Malawi established a Committee with the mandate to look into the sustainable collection and utilisation of Malawi's biological resources. The Committee has drafted guidelines which will govern the collection and export of biological resources.

7.3.4 Law enforcement

The government's policy in conserving any wildlife in Malawi is to ensure that the mortality rate does not exceed the natural rate of increase.

Law enforcement, though unpopular among the local communities adjacent to protected wildlife areas, is one of the most effective means of controlling unsustainable use of wildlife resources. The Department of Nations Parks and Wildlife has thus increased the number of scouts that patrol National Parks and Wildlife Reserves.

7.3.5 Ban of exotic fish species

Considering the diversity of the endemic fish fauna in Lake Malawi, and the evolutionary, ecological and economic importance of the species (Chapter 5), the Malawi Government has put a ban on the uncontrolled importation of any fish species into Malawi.

7.3.6 Uncontrolled export of the indigenous germplasm

The objective is to guard against illegal collection of the country's germplasm. Apart from exceptional circumstances, the export of living indigenous plant and animal species is strictly prohibited. All exports have to be cleared by the relevant institutions in Malawi.

7.3.7 Education and awareness campaigns.

Education, awareness and communication are key prerequisites for promoting conservation of biological diversity in Malawi. Wildlife education and awareness campaigns by the Department of National Parks and wildlife are launched from three main centres, one in each region of the country. The target groups include decision makers, schools, politicians and the general public. These people are taught about the value of the country's biological resources, and how to sustainably utilise them.

The Departments of Fisheries and Forestry have similar programmes (Chapters 4 and 5).

7.3.8 Policy and legislation

Sustainable utilisation of biological resources has been thwarted by restrictive policies, legislation, and inequitable land tenure systems. For example, rural people were denied access to sustainable consumptive utilisation of biological resources, their land was seized and it was assigned to national parks, wildlife and forest reserves, until a few years ago. Despite the historical dependence of rural people on these resources, government priority was on wildlife's contribution to development in terms of direct revenues to the government and in generation of foreign exchange from nature-based tourism. Employment of rural people in the recreational use of protected areas is limited, and the benefits derived from recreational use of wildlife are rarely resumed to the people who live adjacent to national parks, wildlife and forest reserves.

In recognition of the past failures, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife and other natural resources-based departments, such as Forestry and Fisheries are now integrating the conservation of biological resources with rural development (Box 7.3).

Currently, the Departments of National Parks and Wildlife, Forestry and Fisheries are implementing new policies which encourage the participation of communities in the management of natural resources (see Chapters 4 and 5). Sections 4, 35 and 36 of the Environmental Management Act provide further impetus to the conservation of biological diversity of the country.
  7.4 Sustainable development indicators

Export of crocodile skins (Fig. 7.6), licensed ivory carving (Fig. 7.7. (a, b)), sale of hippo teeth (Table 7.8), wildlife-based tourism, which bring foreign exchange to Malawi provide the major sustainable development indicators.
  7.5 Institutional framework

The goals of proper management of biodiversity in Malawi are primarily to:

  • prevent extinction of any species of indigenous animal or plant,
  • maintain and preserve ecological processes and ecological communities within limits of acceptable change (LAC), the aesthetically desired range of states of the system;
  • protect specific natural features, e.g. unique landscapes, or sites of cultural artefacts; 
  • promote tourism and recreation (especially eco-tourism); and
  • develop local communities based on sustainable use of the renewable natural resources.
Some of the key players involved in the management of biodiversity are: Department of National Parks and Wildlife, Department of Fisheries, Department of Forestry, Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, Department of Animal Health and Industry, Environmental Affairs Department, the National Herbarium and Botanical Gardens, and NGOs. These institutions collaborate in promoting biodiversity conservation.
Table 7.9: Quantities and value of hippo teeth
Quantity (Kg)
Value (Mk)
Source: FGU et al 1989/90 Workshop Report [Return]
  7.6. Research and monitoring.

Research and monitoring are an integral component of the overall management process, aiming at providing information that could enhance management of biodiversity. There is need for adequate resource inventories, estimation of populations in order to discern trends and setting of sustainable quotas for resource harvesting. There is need to monitor plants, insects, reptiles, fish, birds, etc. Emphasis has been on big mammals so far.
  7.7 Capacity building

Appropriate technology development and transfer can be accomplished with well-trained personnel to carry out research. The research units of the main line departments which are involved in biodiversity are poorly staffed and without adequate training.
  7.8 Education, awareness and communication

The number of personnel involved in education and awareness programmes focusing on biodiversity conservation need to be increased if the messages are to be effective and reach the larger audience. The programmes are also in acute need of more and better equipment.
  7.9 Biodiversity and land use planning

Land use planning in Malawi has not been effective in guarding against loss of biodiversity, particularly through habitat destruction. Although, the available land has been sub-divided into a number of classes, including arable land and land suitable for livestock grazing, the boom in population has thwarted the limits to acceptable use in the identified land categories, leading even to cultivation of very steep land.

The government therefore need to develop strict land legislation and control mechanisms so guard against cultivation of steep slopes and water catchment areas.

7.10 Economic, fiscal and market-related incentives

A number of the wildlife ventures, such as game ranching, wildlife trophy sales, eco-tourism, bee keeping and guinea fowl farming are economic and market related incentives for Malawians to adopt biodiversity conservation. Game ranching is in its infancy in Malawi, but it has increased from only two ranches in 1989 to five in 1996, and there are a number of applicants who wish to establish game ranching in Malawi.

7.11 Implications for regional and global issues

Many of Malawi's biological resources undertake trans-boundary migrations, and as such are a resource that belong to more than one country. Similarly most of the forested areas conserve water catchments that transcend national boundaries, hence destruction of such forests, or migratory species would have both regional and global implications. The loss of wild plant species that are relatives of domesticated agricultural crops can have a negative impact of national, regional and global scale, therefore, promoting their sustainable use and an equitable sharing of benefits accruing from them should guard against loss of biological resources.

Chapter References:

 Contents | Foreword  | Acknowlegdements | Editorial Process
Contributors | Preface | Acronyms  | Overview
Chapters: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | Appendix I
Lists: Maps | Figures | Tables | Boxes | References