For the ordinary Malawian, biodiversity means sources of livelihood. Nature offers food, honey, income, energy, medicine and cultural services. They believe nature and biodiversity are God-given and therefore unlimited. Luckily the awareness is growing that nature is not to be taken for granted. Local communities do see the necessity of managing and taking care of nature.
In the past, Malawi had quite a few special (endemic) species, not only in the lake (700 endemic Cichlid species and 15% of the world's freshwater fish) but also on terrestrial level. Unfortunately, today there is a lack of knowledge of the distribution and the status of many endemic and/or rare species in Malawi. To give an impression of Malawi’s biodiversity and its protection:
- The total number of terrestrial plant species in Malawi is not known but available records indicate that there are approximately 6000 plant species, of which 89 are vulnerable, 14 endangered, and 25 critically endangered species. Approximately 114 plant species are known to grow only very locally in Malawi, but none of these are formally protected. Only eleven plant species have legal protection in Malawi (2002 IUCN Red Data List of Threatened Plants).
- 140 species of reptiles are recorded in Malawi. Very little is known of their conservation status. Twelve species are thought to be endemic to Malawi.
- There are about 648 species of birds, 456 of which are resident. Over a third of all bird species in Malawi is considered to be uncommon or rare and should be of long-term conservation concern. 94 birds in Malawi are restricted-range species, found in only one or a few biomes.
- About 188 species of mammals have been recorded in Malawi. Seven of those - African wild dog, cheetah, lion, African elephant, black rhinoceros, red-bellied coast squirrel and chequered elephantshrew - are listed in the 1996 IUCN Red Data List of Threatened Species.
Protection of Nature
In the 1920s the Malawian government set up protected areas as a conservation measure for its unique ecosystems, habitats and species. Nowadays three main categories of protected areas (national parks, wildlife reserves and forest reserves) together cover approximately 20% of the total land area in Malawi.
That sounds like an awful lot. But in reality the plants and animals in these areas are far from fully protected. All Malawian parks suffer from poaching, illegal felling of trees and charcoal burning, illegal fishing and opening of vegetable gardens . Poachers use awful traps; when wounded animals like elephants go berserk in the neighboring villages, the only solution is to kill them. Another way of poaching is to set the forest on fire; when animals have no way to hide, they are an easy catch.
There are laws against poaching and other illegal activities in the protected areas. But offenders often get away easily. The punishment for illegal cutting of wood, for example, consists of confiscation of the tools. This is a huge deal for the poor farmer, who takes a few pieces of wood for his own family. But it does not really harm offenders who take huge stocks of wood for the market. Officially these offenders can be sent to jail, but in reality this rarely happens. The same goes for poachers. Catching a poacher is difficult. The punishment is sentence to jail, but there are not nearly enough rangers to patrol the large areas . Some reserves and parks are fenced, which is effective against poaching but also prevents animals from migrating.
Solving these issues is difficult. Many illegal activities in protected areas are linked to poverty and a weak government. Can you punish hungry people for catching birds to eat? When Lake Chilwa, an international protected bird area under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, almost dried up in 2011, fishermen and their families were starving. Some migrated to other areas, but the remaining fishermen survived by eating birds. Can you really put someone in jail for simply trying to survive? And how do you distinguish between a poacher, who kills for money, and a farmer poaching for sustenance? Isn’t it better to teach the latter alternative ways of livelihood, so he does not need to poach anymore? As long as the government is as weak as it is and as long as the traditional chiefs are corrupt, there won’t be a solution on these issues.
Luckily more and more Malawians do recognize the problems and step up against their chiefs, demanding by-laws and protection of their land. They work hard to recover forests and degraded land, and to change agriculture methods. I see it happening in my own project area as we speak, and gives me reason to be hopeful. It still is a long way, however, until these strong local people will truly influence the government and get their so much needed support.