Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

Widdringtonia species are hermaphroditic: having both male and female reproductive organs on the same plant (monoecious) (8). The seeds of most Widdringtonia species may be kept in the female cones for several years, and are usually only dropped after being scorched by a wildfire to grow on the newly cleared burnt ground (9). The Mulanje cedar is a pioneer species, which is unable to regenerate under a closed canopy. Protected from frequent fires saplings can be found growing sporadically on the forest edge (5). Very little else has been documented on the biology of this tree.
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Description

The Mulanje cedar, declared the national tree of Malawi by the late Malawi president Hastings Kamazu Banda (3) (5), is considered a very valuable timber, important to socio-economic development (6). It is a tall, impressive, wide-crowned forest tree with a long straight trunk (4), often branchless up to a height of about 21 meters, making it useful for timber (2). Like the other three Widdringtonia species native to Africa, or 'African cypresses', this tree is referred to as a 'cedar' (7), possibly for the aromatic, cedar-like odour of its wood (2), but is actually completely unrelated to true cedars (7). As with many other species in the cypress family, Widdringtonia species have different juvenile and adult foliage. While seedlings have needle-like leaves arranged spirally around a stem, adults possess scale-like leaves, arranged in opposite pairs at right angles to one another, pressed tightly against the stem (7) (8).
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Distribution

Range Description

The Mulanje Cedar is endemic to Mt. Mulanje in Malawi. The extent of occurrence is estimated to be less than 600 km2 with an actual area of occupancy estimated to be 845 ha. It is known from a single location (sensu IUCN)
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Range

The Mulanje cedar is endemic to Mount Mulanje, a Forest Reserve in southern Malawi. Mount Mulanje covers an area of 650 m² and rises over 3,000 metres, making it the second highest mountain in southern Africa (1) (3) (5).
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Ecology

Habitat

Habitat and Ecology

Habitat and Ecology
Widdringtonia whytei is an important to co-dominant species in the Afromontane forest on Mt. Mulanje, which also includes Podocarpus milanjianus, Cassipourea malosana, Ekebergia capensis, Olea capensis, Polyscias fulva, Rapanea melanophloeos and Xymalos monospora, and in the more fire-prone ecotone (with ericaceous scrub) to grassland, the closely related species Widdringtonia nodiflora. It is a successional species after fire ("periodic fire climax"), but unlike its congener, it does not coppice from (fire-caused) stumps and has to regenerate from seed (Pauw and Linder 1997). Thickets of Erica benguelensis which develop after fire offer protection for cedar seedlings, leading to W. whytei becoming the dominant tree until invading angiosperms succeed; however, these have been prevented from doing so by the next fire at a cycle of 100-200 years. Mt. Mulanje is a granitic batholith rising through surrounding older sediments. The soils are therefore largely rocky, acidic and shallow except in colluvial pockets in gorges and valleys. The altitudinal range is 1,830-2,550 m a.s.l. The climate is cool tropical montane, with abundant precipitation, much of it as fog.

Systems
  • Terrestrial
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Scattered in sub-montane, moist, mixed, open forest between 1,500 and 2,200 meters above sea level (9).
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Conservation

Conservation Status

IUCN Red List Assessment


Red List Category
CR
Critically Endangered

Red List Criteria
A4acde; B2ab(i,ii,iii,iv,v)

Version
3.1

Year Assessed
2013

Assessor/s
Farjon, A.

Reviewer/s
Thomas, P.

Contributor/s

Justification
Widdringtonia whytei has been heavily exploited for more than 100 years. Its current actual area of occupancy is estimated to be about 845 ha. Continued illegal logging, combined with an increased frequency of fires, a lack of regeneration, the impact of invasive species, exotic pests and over collection of firewood is likely to produce a decline of more than 80% by 2030. As a result it is assessed as Critically Endangered under the criteria for A4 and B2.

History
  • 1998
    Endangered
  • 1997
    Endangered
    (Walter and Gillett 1998)
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Status

Classified as Endangered (EN) by the IUCN Red List 2007 (1). There has been much debate on whether this species is actually a form or sub-species of Widdringtonia nodiflora, a more common southern African species (3) (4) (5). However, recent DNA research undertaken by the University of Cape Town has revealed that Widdringtonia whytei is indeed a separate species.
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Population

Population
A recent survey (Makungwa 2004) has concluded that only 845 ha of ‘Cedar forest’ is left on Mt. Mulanje. Within this area almost 33% of the trees were dead. Given the current rate of illegal logging, combined with a range of other threatening processes, the overall decline is likely to exceed 80% by 2030.

Population Trend
Decreasing
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Threats

Major Threats
This species is acutely threatened with extinction for a range of reasons. Its area of occupancy and the number of individuals has been severely reduced through excessive felling in the past 100+ years. Currently, only dead standing timber is legally harvested but illegal cutting of living trees is a major problem. An increase in the extent and frequency of fires further reduces remaining stands and prevents regeneration. Although some fires are natural, the majority are the result of deliberately set hunting fires, crop burning and, to a lesser extent, forestry and tourism activities. Fuelwood collection and the expansion of small holder farms into the lower slopes is a more indirect, but widespread threat as it leads to deforestation and degradation of forests at lower altitudes. As these lower forests disappear, pressure increases on the higher altitude forests including the remaining cedar stands. One recent study (Hecht 2008) indicated that, if current trends continue, the lower slopes could be completely deforested within the next decade, with the upper forest following soon after. Forestry plantations have been established in many parts of the plateau: Pinus patula has since become the dominant species in some areas. Introduced pests such as the Giant Cypress Aphid (Cinara cupressivora), originally associated with the exotic forestry species Cupressus macrocarpa caused significant losses in the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the introduction of biological controls, it is still a significant problem. A potential threat in the near future relates to open cast mining of the significant bauxite deposits that have been found on several parts of the plateau.
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The Mulanje cedar has been heavily exploited in the past (3) (5) (9), with its wood used as timber and its sawdust distilled to obtain oil for local use as an insecticide (3) (5) (10). The wood is considered enormously valuable, being very fragrant and resistant to termites, borers and fungal disease. It is used locally for making carvings, boxes and furniture sold to tourists and is also sold abroad for light construction and flooring. The timber is thought to be particularly good for boat-building, to the point that fishery officials have urged that remaining supplies be reserved for the Lake Malawi fishing industry. The Forestry Department of Malawi have recently agreed to supply Mulanje Cedar to build 450 boats for this purpose (11). The tree's decline has been somewhat stemmed by a ban on felling, allowing exploitation only of dead trees, but illegal felling and killing of trees continues at an alarming rate. The Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve is also generally threatened by encroachment and large-scale development, such as the continual threat of bauxite mining. Additionally, there is concern that mature individuals appear to be dying at a high rate, thought possibly to be due to their high sensitivity to forest fires and susceptibility to attacks by a species of aphid (3). Regeneration, on the other hand, seems to depend on fire and is extremely poor. In addition, Pinus patula (originally a commercial plantation species) has invaded a number of areas suitable for Widdringtonia colonisation (5) (9). All these threats have greatly impacted the Mulanje cedar; a 2007 study found that the remaining Mulanje cedar forests had been reduced by 40 percent over the previous 15 years (3). Out of the remaining 845.3 hectares of forest identified, over 32 percent of standing Mulanje cedar was found to be dead (3). As so much dead wood is available for utilisation, there should be no reason to cut live Mulanje cedar (3).
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Management

Conservation Actions

Conservation Actions
Mt Mulanje was declared as a Forest Reserve in 1927, partly to regulate the exploitation of the cedar forests but also to protect the watersheds. Currently all logging of live cedars is illegal and the collection of dead timber is regulated by licenses issued by the Forestry Department. Enforcement of these regulations is problematic. Fire breaks have been established in many parts of the reserve but maintenance, along with and monitoring and fire fighting are limited. Small nurseries have been established to produce material for restoration programmes - a limited amount of replanting has taken place but it is too early to judge their success. A range of schemes have been initiated to try and reduce the demand for fuelwood from people in the surrounding areas: a recent review indicated these programmes were too limited in their benefits and that fuelwood demand was likely to increase (Hecht 2008). Biological controls have been introduced to combat aphid infestation. Programmes for invasive weed control are urgently required.
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Conservation

All Mulanje cedars are protected within the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve and licences are available now only for the exploitation of dead trees from the Forestry Department of Malawi (3) (9). The Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust has also been set up to provide long-term support for the research and conservation of biological diversity in the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve, and the sustainable utilisation of its natural resources. The Trust is working with the Forestry Department of Malawi in bringing in community participation to manage the resources of the forest reserve and maximise the benefits among resource users (12). Not only is the Mulanje cedar a national emblem to Malawi, but it is also of critical financial importance to this relatively poor country and, as such, its protection and sustainable use is a national priority (6).
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Wikipedia

Widdringtonia whytei

Plate by Robert Morgan (1863-1900)

Widdringtonia whytei (Mulanje Cypress) is a species of Widdringtonia native to Malawi, where it is endemic to the Mulanje Massif at altitudes of 1,830-2,550 m. It has become endangered as a result of over-harvesting for its wood, and an increase in the frequency of wildfires due to human activity.[2][3][4]

It was formerly often called "Mulanje Cedar" but has been renamed Mulanje Cypress to better reflect its botanical relationships.[5]

Appearance[edit]

It is a large evergreen tree growing to 40–50 m tall. The leaves are scale-like, 1.5-3.5 mm long and 1-1.5 mm broad on small shoots, up to 10 mm long on strong-growing shoots, and arranged in opposite decussate pairs. The cones are globose, 1.5-2.2 cm long, with four scales.[3]

Distribution[edit]

The species Widdringtonia nodiflora is common in South Africa and Zimbabwe in its dwarf form which has little more stature that a scrubby bush. It is only on Mulanje and Mchese Mountain, that a closely related tree form is found, Widdringtonia whytei, commonly known as Mulanje Cedarwood, but renamed “Mulanje Cypress” by the University of the Witwatersrand, to better reflect its botanical relationships.

On these mountains the tree is limited to altitudes between 1830 and 2550m, and it is normally confined to hollows and valleys where the topography provides some protection from fire. Most commonly it occurs as small woodlands amongst rolling tussocky grassland slopes, between craggy, granite, rock faces.

The timber is pale red, straight grained and pleasantly fragrant. Its major qualities are that it works well and is extremely durable, being resistant to attacks from termites, wood boring insects and fungi. For these reasons the timber achieved major economic significance during the first three decades of this century, when it was high in demand for developing work. Currently the timber is most used in the making of local arts and crafts, fishing boats for Lake Malawi, as well as in the construction and decoration of many prestigious buildings.

Threat of extinction[edit]

Due to the high demand for its timber and changing ecological conditions, on the mountain, the tree is under threat of extinction. Mulanje Cedar is a pioneer species, not a climax species, this means that it is good at taking advantage of sites which suddenly become free of other competing species but it is not successful in open competition. Thus, when fire occurs which destroys the trees in an area of woodland, Mulanje Cedar will normally be the first tree species to re-establish itself. Other species will come in later but because the cedar is relatively fast growing, it will not face much competition for sunlight.

Requisites for regeneration[edit]

If the area is undisturbed, the Cedar will continue to grow well and other, more shade-tolerant species, will come in and form a dense canopy beneath it. The forest floor will then become dark, and young Cedar, being relatively light demanding, will not flourish. It is only if there is further disturbance in the area which allows a lot of light to the forest floor that significant quantities of Cedar will be able to establish itself. Thus, fire is an essential pre-requisite for dense, even, natural regeneration. The timing between fires is also critical. If fires are too frequent, the young trees will be killed before they can produce seed; if the fires are too infrequent the trees will die before space is created for their seeds to use. Generally it is said that a fire interval between 100 to 200 years would be ideal. During recent years however, due to the increasing population of subsistence farmers around the base of the mountain, fires spreading up and over the mountain, especially in the dry season, have become more frequent. It is clear that most young trees are being killed before they reach maturity.

Conservation[edit]

Role of Forestry Department[edit]

The Forestry Department provides the cedar forests with protection from damaging fires. Each year at the beginning of the dry season hundreds of kilometers of firebreaks are hoed clean of vegetation to provide barriers which will impede the advance of fires. In addition early controlled burning is carried out to reduce the build up of combustible material which could otherwise cause very intense and damaging fires later in the dry season. For further safety fire standby gangs equipped with fire fighting equipment are stationed on each of the plateau areas whenever there is a fire hazard.

As well as providing protection from fires the Forestry Department and the Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust carefully control the use of the trees. Back in the day sawing licenses could be issued by the Forestry Department, but because there was still an extensive amount of illegal pit sawing taking place, the sawing season has been closed since 2007. But of course the pit sawing did not stop. The black market for Cedar wood grew, and has not been stopped, yet. All cedar wood sawn after 2007 is illegal wood, and can be confiscated by Forestry, MMCT and the Malawi Police. Since 2009 there are also Armed Forestry Groups patrolling the Cedar clusters, to stop the illegal pit sawyers.

Other conservation efforts[edit]

But firebreaks and patrols are not the only things done to conserve Malawi’s National Tree. Forestry has established a planting programme to re-populate the Mulanje Cedar(Cypress). In the rainy season 2008/09 there were over 50000 seedlings planted on Mount Mulanje with an estimated survival rate of over 30%. In 2009/10 Forestry plans to plant more than 20000 seedlings, with, hopefully, an even higher survival rate.

But the problem is not solved, yet. Conservation needs to be continued with rising intensity. The Widdringtonia whytei is still listed as “Threatened-Endangered (IUCN 2.3)” in the annual Red List published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). If the conservation work is not continued, the noble Mulanje Cedar, Malawi’s National Tree, will probably extinct in less than 10 years.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Farjon, A. (2013). "Widdringtonia whytei". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2013.1. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 5 July 2013. 
  2. ^ Conifer Specialist Group 1998. Widdringtonia whytei. Downloaded on 10 July 2007.
  3. ^ a b Farjon, A. (2005). Monograph of Cupressaceae and Sciadopitys. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. ISBN 1-84246-068-4
  4. ^ Pauw, C. A. & Linder, H. P. 1997. Widdringtonia systematics, ecology and conservation status. Bot. J. Linn. Soc. 123: 297-319.
  5. ^ University of the Witwatersrand: Recommended English names for trees of Southern Africa
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