To Kill an African Giant
Published in The Mail&Guardian, 25 November 2011

A century of poaching has brought Malawi’s national tree, the prehistoric-looking Mulanje Cedar, to the verge of extinction. Until recently, efforts to conserve it have proved just as detrimental to its prospects.

Since 1891 Mount Mulanje, the 64 000-hectare granite massif that rises to a height of 3 000m from Malawi’s southern plains, has been the darling of British botanists, administrators and adventurers, finding its way into popular literature in the form of Laurens Van Der Post’s Venture into the Interior, and inspiring H Rider Haggard’s People of the Mists.

In recent years Mulanje has been something of a donor darling, attracting funds from the World Bank, USAid, and Britain’s Department for International Development, and although the funding proposals express just concern for the rapidly vanishing miombo woodlands at the base of the mountain, the endemic birds, ungulates and the as yet unnamed invertebrates, towering above everything else in the area’s conservation history, just as it does above its competitors in the mountain’s forested ravines, is the Mulanje Cedar.

David Nangoma, an ecologist with the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust (MMCT), shrugs a little wearily when we state our interest in the tree’s plight.
“Well, we do a lot of other work — we make firebreaks, eradicate aliens and run between the villages on conservation awareness drives. But it is the cedar everyone wants to know about at the moment, so we find ourselves focusing a lot on that,” he says.
It has been this way for years.

I explain to David that, like thousands of people, I visited Mulanje before the MMCT’s genesis in 2000, and observed local cedar-bearers descending from the escarpment with 6 meter baulks on their heads, and heard my guide tut tut and say that the greed of a few local villagers was destroying the last stands of mkunguza, the national tree. I explain that the guide said this while passing under the cable of an old mechanized pulley system built by the Nyasaland Timber and Trading Company in the 50’s, to enable the monthly delivery of thousands of cubic feet of Mulanje cedar to the colonial public works department. I mean to indicate that, while my interest is well worn, I’ve at least read the books and have understood that the post-colonial pillaging of Mulanje’s forests is merely in a continuum with the colonial ransacking. Of course I don’t actually say this—that would be way too cute, far too carried away by the present academic fad for green-minded cultural critique. And at any rate, in correspondence with a scientist from Kew Gardens who works as an itinerant for the MMCT, my politics have already been disparaged (and perhaps rightly) ‘as a little Guardianesque’.
“It’s a long story,” Nangoma says sympathetically and, though he’s tired from chasing after illegal eucalyptus loggers three nights in a row, he agrees to recount what he knows. The rest, he says, is out there — in project proposals, scientific papers and books.
Of the latter, Van Der Post’s Mulanje travelogue stands out.

In 1951 the British government sent the prolific writing adventurer to assess the agricultural potential of Malawi’s mountainous areas. Even then he could write about “a world of cedars in retreat, a world of unique and irreplaceable living trees, fighting a desperate rearguard action against fire and rapacious human beings”.
It’s a flawed book, self-aggrandizing and overly dramatic, but it also contains a critique of colonial conservation that is as piercing as any being written today. Van Der Post describes British foresters he meets as being possessive over the mountain and its cedar, particularly one Dicky Vance, who leaves the writer with ‘the disconcerting feeling that my mere presence there was an intrusion in someone’s most private and intimate world.’
Vance’s subsequent death while attempting to cross the swollen Ruo River hardly comes as a surprise because Van Der Post has all along been structuring a parable about the danger inherent in loving too much ‘a prehistoric world’, by which he means an African mountain and its signature flora, which, ‘in their ancient resentment and deep disdain of men and their mission, stood still without even a rustle or a whisper.’

Today, Dicky Vances abound. In April 2008, for example, an American environmental economist called Joy Hecht climbed Mulanje and wrote about the experience for National Geographic Africa. Her party, which included Julian Bayliss, the British ecologist who in the same year ‘discovered’ 7 000 hectares of virgin rainforest in northern Mozambique (an experience he later described as being ‘a modern version of the David Livingstone-type experience; those Victorian expeditions’), encountered illegal loggers cutting live cedar.

Julian was furious,” wrote Hecht. “Cutting live cedar is always illegal; at that time even cutting dead cedar was illegal. Our porter tried to control him, to keep him from blaming the workers. And to warn them that they had saws, and that violence wasn’t impossible. Finally, Julian retreated, pale with rage.”

An anthropologist looking to expand Bayliss’s loving adoption of Mulanje and its trees into a generality about Malawi’s Euro-Africans would find ample evidence in the acknowledgments pages of Jim Chapman’s fantastic 1995 monograph about the Mulanje Cedar, in which he thanks a litany of Temples, Wyatt-Smiths, Royles, Sargents and Hardcastles, but only one Kakwhende. Anglo-Malawians do reserve special affection for Mulanje and its great tree, and it is clear from the earliest accounts of the place that the colonials felt compelled to conserve the cedar, if only because it was “equal to the finest yellow pine” (Alexander Whyte, 1891), and “a valuable supply of timber if properly preserved and replanted” (Lieutenant Sclater, 1893).

By 1920 the chief forest officer had ordered “the hoeing and burning of fire lines round the clumps of (Mulanje cedar) forest”, as ravine-scaling fires from the increasingly populated plains were then considered the greatest threat to the cedar’s existence. For the next 90 years similar fire management tactics were employed, alongside periodic replantings and bans on logging, and yet cedar numbers continued to fall to the point at which, today, David Newton of conservation organization Traffic says the tree “probably qualifies for the critically endangered category of the IUCN’s (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list, which includes the most threatened species on earth.”

What went wrong?

Democratisation happened in the mid-1990s and before we as Malawians grasped what our responsibilities were as democratic citizens are, there has been a tendency to believe that it represents a free for all,” says Nangoma. He feels this is an interpretation encouraged by politicians.
“For example, you will have noticed there are population pressures in the region, and as a result we have problems of encroachment into the reserve. Malawians go to the polls every five years, but two years prior to elections nobody talks about evictions because it’s too political. As I speak to you now two years before the next election, the forestry department is asking us to open the mountain for a Mulanje cedar cutting season, yet they haven’t even assessed how much stock is available,” he says.
Nangoma is quick to point out, however, that conservationists of the Mulanje Cedar over the years must claim their share of malpractice.
“For the past 10 years a great deal of the Mount Mulanje Conservation Trust’s effort has been spent on eradicating Mexican pine from the mountain, which was introduced to the slopes as a ‘nest crop’ for Mulanje cedar decades ago. When the administrators in those days saw that the pine, which is also a useful timber tree, grew faster than the cedar, they let it go and it was soon dominating the mountain.”

The introduction by foresters of alien tree species resulted in a devastating outbreak of the sap sucking cypress aphid in the 1990s, which is estimated to have wiped out 10 000 cedars. The MMCT has been struggling to staunch the losses since it was founded in 2000 but Nangoma admits that too little is known about the tree’s silviculture. It is likely, in fact, that attempts to manage the cedar based on insufficient knowledge have actually harmed its chances of survival.

In the mid-1990s South African botanists Anton Pauw and Peter Linder spent weeks tramping around the mountain and established that there were in fact two distinct forms of Widdringtonia (the name of a small plant genus that includes both the Mulanje Cedar and the even rarer Clanwilliam Cedar) on the mountain - Widdringtonia whytei, which is the nearextinct Mulanje Cedar, and Widdringtonia nodiflora, a far shrubbier plant that is widespread in Southern Africa. Before this discovery, botanists and conservationists had simply assumed that the Mulanje cedar was a strapping variant of Widdringtonia nodiflora.
“This is problematic,” says Pauw, “because conservation initiatives are usually drawn to a ‘species’, whereas interesting variants receive little attention.”

Believing that the two trees were one, it is likely that conservationists that gathered seeds over the decades and sent them all over the world for trials, collected the cones of the shrubby nodiflora, which can easily be plucked, whereas Pauw recalls how, to get to the cones of the whytei, which can grow to 40m and often doesn’t have a single branch until a height of 20m, he had to fire a thin line into the canopy and climb.
“This probably explains why one hears nothing about those international trials, and why forests of Widdringtonia nodiflora were established in parts of Malawi when the intention was to establish whytei,” says Pauw.
An even poorer understanding of the Mulanje Cedar’s ecology (the way it relates to its surroundings, regenerates and so forth) is in all likelihood responsible for even bitterer ironies.

According to University of Cape Town-based botanist Ed February, the Mulanje Cedar doesn’t coppice after fire, and since fire frequently burns the scrublands of the Mulanje plateau, the cedars are only found growing in afromontane forests in Mount Mulanje’s protected clefts. However, the cedar can’t regenerate in forest either — it’s a gymnosperm, unable to compete successfully with angiosperms in the absence of direct sunlight. Unable to grow in open grassland, and equally challenged in the forests in which adults are found, the Mulanje Cedar’s reproduction strategy presents a conundrum that has exasperated ecologists for many years.
“What kind of survival strategy is that for a plant, to grow exactly where it can’t reproduce?” asks February.

Pauw’s theory, with which February agrees, is that the Mulanje Cedar’s thick and spongy bark enables it to survive mild fires that would nevertheless kill off the other trees in the area, enabling Mulanje Cedar to establish itself, so long as the next fire doesn’t sweep through for many decades. Yet if this theory is correct then it follows - and here’s where the irony comes in - that foresters who for more than 90 years thought they were expending their sweat on burning firebreaks to protect the cedar, were in fact locking it into an environment in which it could not regenerate, in effect neutering it. This would explain why most of the remaining cedars in Mount Mulanje’s forests are either moribund or dead.

In the face of ongoing illegal logging it is the MMCT’s hope that a recently completed funding application to the Darwin Initiative will enable it to pay for Widdringtonia experts such as February to develop management processes that are less scatter-shot. If it doesn’t, and appropriate research-based management practices are not found, the mountain Van Der Post described as ”a terrific, a wizard, a grand place”, will be without its signature tree in a few years. The autopsy will be a gory one of extinction by castration, burning, sawing, ring-barking, sucking of sap and ignorance, and the suspect list will be a mob of men in modern suits, panda hats, and near to nothing at all, and perhaps too those men in colonial khaki like Dicky Vance, who declared to Van Der Post sixty years ago, aren’t they wonderful!…
“….in his clear, firm voice, proudly as if he had invented them.”