Malawi’s critically endangered national tree, the Mulanje cedars, are a minuscule, dwindling fraction of the world’s 3tn trees. These rare trees grow atop a single imposing granite massif, Mount Mulanje, where illegal loggers are axing them to extinction.
The Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (MMCT) aims to reverse the cedar’s decline. With funding from international donors, it has provided forest guards, boosted tourism and organised an unprecedented tree-planting campaign.
Rumoured to be the inspiration for Tolkien’s Lonely Mountain, Mount Mulanje, with its perpetual cloud cover, has a mystical ambience. Its namesake tree, grows to 50 metres, has pleasantly fragrant pale red wood and its sap is poisonous to insects and repels fungus and rot. These qualities make the trees rare and precious, commanding a hefty timber price.
A majestic Mulanje cedar towers above the canopy on Mount Mulanje. Photograph: Morgan Trimble
For over a century, the wood has been used heavily in construction, woodworking and Lake Malawi’s boat industry. Colonial British rule over Nyasaland brought commercial exploitation of the cedars from 1898 to 1955, but it also established Mulanje Mountain forest reserve. Today, protection of the reserve falls to Malawi’s pitifully underfunded, understaffed and corrupt forestry department, still reeling after the so-called “cashgate” scandal dried up funding.