General Description / Cultural Significance
Malawi is a long, narrow country in Southeastern Africa, bordered by Tanzania, Mozambique, and Zambia. It is covered by stunning highlands and expansive lakes, scattered with tea and tobacco estates on which Malawian subsistence farmers make their livings. The endemic Mulanje Cypress, Widdringtonia whytei, used to thrive along the Mulanje Mountain slopes. Officially recognized as Malawi’s national tree, the Mulanje Cedar has a pleasant and distinctive fragrance representative of its home country. The tree’s termite-impervious, fungi-resistant, durable timber has long been utilized for construction and decorative carving. When cut, the Mulanje Cedar releases its distinctive scent. The tree’s fragrant sap is anti-fungal and an insecticide. Harvesting the Mulanje Cedar is an important Malawian source of income, but unregulated extraction has resulted in a decline in thirty-seven percent of the country’s Cedar forests. The Mulanje Mountains are not only home to the Mulanje Cedar but are also the birthplace of rich Malawian folklore and a major eco-tourism attraction that is critical for the country’s economy. Illegal felling, erosion, and other impacts of climate change are putting this significant ecosystem at risk.
Climate Change / Conservation Status
Widdringtonia whytei has now been officially identified by the IUCN as critically endangered. Heavy logging, increased wildfires, and poaching have further exacerbated the tree’s status. More frequent droughts have altered the Mulanje Cedar’s protective chemical makeup, leaving it weakened in the face of increased insect infestations. Encroaching Pinus patula (Patula Pine) populations are adding further stress onto the Widdringtonia whytei, whose distribution is rapidly shrinking.
The influence of climate change is escalating circumstances which challenge the Mulanje Cedar’s survival. In 2019, Malawi was devastated by Cyclone Idai which caused massive flash floods and environmental destruction. Hundreds of people were injured, and many lost their lives, buried in the mudslides. Rushing waters destroyed Malawi’s fauna and flora. Scientific studies have shown that as the Southern Indian Ocean warms, the severity of tropical cyclones will only increase. Since 2019, Cyclone Ana ploughed through the country, causing mass developmental erosion. Cyclone Batsirai hit the country in February of 2022, also causing massive, widespread damage. When Malawi is not ravaged by these tropical storms, El Niño dry spells consistently leave the country in dire need for food and water.
Malawi’s Mulanje Cedar is a critically endangered tree. Its near demise has been brought about by exploitation, logging, invasive species, and increased fires followed by stunted regeneration and devastating climate change driven cyclones. As climate change causes the Mulanje Cedar’s territory to diminish, the loss of these trees and their ability to trap heat and carbon dioxide causes more warming, only making climate change worse. This is a horrific cycle which will continue to impact the people of Malawi unless something is done.
Cai, W., McCann, A. and Patel, J., 2019. Mozambique’s Cyclone: Mapping the Destruction of Idai. [website]
Chapman, J.D., 1994. Notes on Mulanje cedar – Malawi’s national tree. The Commonwealth Forestry Review, 73(4), pp.235–242.
Global Trees Campaign, 2022. Mulanje Cedar. Fauna & Flora International. [website]
Nyirongo, E., 2021. Myths Shroud Mulanje mountain. The Mail & Guardian. [website]
PROTA, 2022. Widdringtonia Whytei Rendle. PROTA4U. [website]
Secretary for National Heritage, Malawi and Permanent Mission of the Republic of Malawi to the United Nations. This statement can be found on the World Sensorium original website.
Trimble, M., 2015. Planting to save Malawi’s national tree. The Guardian. [website]
UN, 2021. Acting before disasters strike: Malawi embraces a new approach for tackling climate-related hazards. United Nations. [website]