South Viphya Forest Reserve

Site description (2001 baseline):

Site location and context
The South Viphya Plateau is the second-largest montane complex in Malawi; it is some 90 km long from north to south and 15–20 km wide. It starts about 30 km south-west of the North Viphya Plateau, from which it is separated by a belt of lower-altitude woodland around Mzuzu. Montane conditions prevail above 1,550–1,600 m and the total area above the 1,600 m contour covers some 82,000 ha. There are several peaks between 1,900 and 2,000 m. The eastern escarpment is deeply dissected, almost inaccessible country, whose numerous streams drain into the Luweya river system and Lake Malawi; the Luweya valley, at 900–1,000 m, forms part of the eastern boundary of the reserve. The central high plateau supports an enormous plantation (48,000 ha) of exotic pines, mainly Pinus patula. The pines were planted exclusively over montane grassland, while the patches of evergreen forest were deliberately preserved. As for the high Nyika, there is no evidence that this cold plateau was ever permanently settled. Three main patches of montane rainforest occur: Nthungwa (11°40’S 33°49’E, 108 ha at 1,600–1,800 m), Chamambo (11°50’S 33°50’E, 260 ha at 1,600–1,800 m) and Kawandama (12°01’S 33°52’E, 75 ha at 1,750–1,850 m). Ficalhoa laurifolia and Cryptocarya liebertiana are the most important emergents. Numerous smaller patches are scattered on the plateau and down the eastern slopes, totalling probably over 4,500 ha of montane and mid-altitude forest. Outside forests and plantations, the main vegetation-type is rank montane grassland and shrubland, with also some transition miombo woodland down the eastern escarpment, and a few attractive dambos in drainage channels.

Key biodiversity
See Box and Tables 2 and 3 for key species. Some 287 species have been recorded, including Falco naumanni, which is probably regular in small numbers. There are also old breeding records of Grus carunculatus, but it seems to have been extirpated by the pine plantations. The Zambezian biome species include Ploceus olivaceiceps. The site holds practically the whole population of the endemic and very isolated race doni of Francolinus squamatus: the francolin is widespread and locally common between 1,000–1,800 m in forest, secondary scrub and occasionally penetrates pine plantations. The eastern scarp-forests below 1,400 m contain important numbers of Sheppardia gunningi (possibly over 1,000 pairs) and are under less pressure than the Lake shore forests (site MW005); between them, sites MW005 and MW006 hold over 80% of the endemic race bensoni. Several montane species reach their southern limits of distribution on the Viphya, including Onychognathus tenuirostris and Laniarius fuelleborni. Neotis denhami is regularly recorded and still breeds on the plateau grassland, where Hirundo atrocaerulea nests in small numbers.

Non-bird biodiversity: Vegetation: an undescribed species of Memecylon forest tree has been collected at Nthungwa (and at site MW003). Some 14 species of montane trees and woody shrubs reach their southern limits of distribution on the Viphya (including Entandrophragma excelsum, Ficalhoa laurifolia and Ocotea usambarensis). Mammals: this is the only Malawi locality for the rodent Arvicanthis niloticus. Butterflies: species otherwise confined in Malawi to the lake shore forests include Catuna sikorana and Amauris crawshayi. Four species reach their southern limits: Junonia sinuata, Henotesia ubenica, Uranothauma cuneatum and Phlyaria heritsia.

Pressure/threats to key biodiversity
An important area of montane grassland (48,000 ha) has disappeared under pine plantations since the 1970s. The evergreen forests have, overall, been well preserved; the eastern scarp is uninhabited and the main risk is from bush fires coming up from the lowlands. However, the Forestry Plantation project has not been well managed in recent years; in 1996, 13,000 ha of pine plantations were maliciously burnt. Whether this affected the evergreen forests is unknown.

Recommended citation
BirdLife International (2024) Important Bird Area factsheet: South Viphya Forest Reserve. Downloaded from on 28/02/2024.