The Nyika Plateau is the largest montane complex in the country, with some 180,000 ha above the 1,800 m contour (above which montane conditions prevail). The scenery is spectacular, with the upper plateau covered by c.100,000 ha of gently rolling Loudetia–Andropogon grassland. The peak (Nganda, 2,607 m) is a grassy hill. Numerous impeded drainage channels support dambos, with small patches of short-canopy Hagenia–Myrica montane forest on the slopes (at 2,250–2,450 m). These are usually below 1–2 ha in size and cover c.2–3% of the area of the central plateau. Only the wet eastern escarpment is extensively forested, with some 3,400 ha of Ocotea–Ficalhoa montane rainforest at 1,700–2,350 m. Tall Aningeria–Olea montane rainforest reappears on the gentle south-western slopes (1,950–2,250 m) where it is rather fragmented. Total forest cover in the park isc.6,000 ha. Brachystegia (miombo) woodland ascends to 2,050 m on the drier and warmer western scarp. It is the dominant type of vegetation in the northern extension of the park (established 1978)—an area of rugged terrain, broken hills and large faulted valleys. A small section of the western side of the plateau lies in the contiguous Zambian Nyika National Park (IBA ZM022). The Nyika is an important catchment area and contains the source of four large rivers which drain into Lake Malawi, including the North Rukuru, and one into the Luangwa river in Zambia (the Chire or Luwumbu).
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. Over 420 species have been recorded. The plateau grasslands contain the main breeding population of Grus carunculatus in the country (12 pairs in 1986) and the site is also the breeding stronghold for Neotis denhami. The breeding population of Hirundo atrocaerulea was estimated at 204–260 pairs for the central plateau above 2,200 m, so probably approaches 300 pairs in the whole park. Circus macrourus is a common winter visitor, while Falco naumanni and Gallinago media are annual visitors in small numbers, and Crex crex is recorded occasionally. Several species occur nowhere else in the country: Francolinus levaillantii (the isolated endemic race crawshayi), Chloropetasimilis, Cisticola njombe, Nectarinia johnstoni, Euplectes psammocromius and Ploceus baglafecht, all at the southern limits of their distribution here. The endemic and very isolated race whytei of Nectarinia graueri breeds commonly in montane shrubland. The little-known swift Schoutedenapus myoptilus is locally common over the larger patches of forest.
Non-bird biodiversity: Vegetation: the park is noted for its orchid flora, with c.150 terrestrial and c.50 epiphytic species, four of which are endemic and two others near-endemic (shared with Misukus or South Viphya). Several montane-forest trees (including Hagenia abyssinica, Euphorbia obovalifolia) reach their southern limits of distribution on the Nyika. Amphibians: the tree frog Hyperolius mertensi (or H. quinquevittatus mertensi, according to taxonomic treatment) is endemic to the Nyika dambos, and the ‘Nyika Squeaker’ is an endemic race (nyikae) of Arthroleptis xenodactyloides. Mammals: the Nyika is the only known Malawi locality for the following: Suncus lixus, S. varilla (shrews); Plerotes anchietae (bat); Otomys typus and O. denti (rodents). Species for which the Nyika is especially important include Panthera pardus, Tragelaphus oryx (LR/cd), Hippotragus equinus (LR/cd) and Redunca arundinum (LR/cd). Butterflies: Charaxes dowsetti, Axiocerces nyika, Lepidochrysops handmani, L. chalceus and L. nyika are (on present evidence) endemic to the Nyika. The forest butterfly fauna is the richest in Malawi — some 120 of the 200 species present in the country. Species known from nowhere else in Malawi include: Papilio mackinnoni, Neptis nina, Argiolaus pamelae, Triclema nigeriae, Uranothauma williamsi, Brusa saxicola, Metisella medea, M. perexcellens and Chondrolepis telisignata. The plateau is the southern limit of the following additional species: Gorgyra bibulus, Charaxes ansorgei and Bematistes scalivittata. The Nyika appears to be the northern known limit of Eretis djaelaelae.
Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
The recognition of the plateau and its surrounding hills as a water catchment area for four rivers in northern Malawi resulted in the park being expanded in 1978. The extension area includes 200,000 ha of miombo woodland that was formerly inhabited by several communities. These communities were relocated resulting, even today, in much resentment among the disenfranchised population. In general, population densities in northern Malawi are much lower than elsewhere in the country (less than 25/km2 as against >100/km2 in the south), but political pressure is being exerted to release land in the Parks and Wildlife estate back to the people. The park has no buffer zone and community agriculture creates a ‘hard edge’ effect against the park boundary. Uncontrolled fires in the dry season sweep up onto the plateau from below causing serious damage to the small patches of forest scattered over the grasslands, and the lack of any fire-protection policy in recent years has exacerbated the situation.
BirdLife International (2023) Important Bird Areas factsheet: Nyika National Park (Malawi). Downloaded from
http://www.birdlife.org on 07/02/2023.