Telephone +44 (0)1400 273323

Biosearch Expeditions Responsible Wildlife Research Expeditions in Nyika National Park, Malawi

Invite me!

The History of the Development of the  Nyika National Park 1

From a modern point of view the recognition and development of the Nyika can probably be dated to the late nineteenth century. In those early colonial times areas of significance for game shooting were soon identified and explored. However, as far back as 1901 John McClounie, one of the early British government officers of the then British Central Africa Protectorate, recommended protection of the Nyika as a preserve for Zebra and Roan. The nearby Livingstonia Mission used timber from the Juniper Forest , on the Nyika plateau, for its construction and by the 1930s it was recognised that this forest was of special value because of both its southerly geographic location and vulnerability to felling.

Laurens van de Post in his book Venture into the Interior described the Nyika, following his brief travels here in 1949:

We had a view that uplifted us beyond all measure. World beyond world we saw. A tremendous rolling, folding country; clean golden, grass-covered. Rising like an Olympian Pastoral Symphony to a dark blue ridge; an Atlantic roller of land to the west. In all the folds there appeared to be water. In all the hollows dark green copses but nowhere any sign of people or habitation of any kind. "Bwana" said Mpoka "the best Nyika is on the other side of the ridge"

He had captured the dramatic wildness of the area and the fact that it was isolated from most human settlements, a sort of Wuthering Heights moorland of northern Malawi . The swirling low cloud, described elsewhere, creates a mystery in keeping with some of the best works of the Bronte sisters.

By 1950 there was serious interest in creating a forestry scheme, initially to plant black wattle. However, on realising it would not thrive in the cold winter environment at over 7000 ft, pine, already planted on the Viphya plateau further south, was considered to be a suitable substitute. The main access road from Rumphi to a forestry camp at Chilinda was constructed in the next two years. There was of course at that time, interest in the game populations on the plateau; Zebra, Roan and Eland being notable. Amazingly, one of Africa 's currently threatened species, the Wild Dog, was thought to be too numerous and a real threat to game stocks! Lion, now very rarely seen, were also frequent at that time. Serious game hunting with modern weapons had started with the arrival of missionaries. Game populations had begun to diminish from the Victorian era, since written accounts suggest that Rhino were common in what is now the northern extension of the park; they are now virtually extinct in Malawi , although captive breeding attempts are being made.

One ancient 'industry' that has occurred on the Nyika plateau was smelting rocks for iron; this was done in primitive urns and probably died out early in the 20th century. Walking up and down a 5000 ft escarpment must have been some disincentive unless the value was high! This probably gave the game populations a degree of protection too.

By now the park was under the management of the Forestry department. Although grand plans to plant huge areas of Pinus patula did not materialise, 500 ha was planted and it has been steadily expanding since, due to efficient natural regeneration. Many rue the day the plantation commenced but it has now grown to give a sheltered area, providing firewood and building materials for visitors, on one of the bleakest parts of the park. "If people could stick it out at Chilinda they could live anywhere else on the Nyika" was one of the reasons given for establishment of the forestry camp there!

By 1952 there was a ban on hunting except for warthog and bushpig. This probably had little effect but was at least pragmatic since most of the small villages on and around the existing National Park kept pigs. Evidence of illegal removal would have been difficult to prove. Besides there really was not the manpower to patrol effectively and legal hunting continued right up to the perimeter of the high plateau.



In 1972 the important road down the western escarpment of the park, connecting Rumphi to Nthalire, was constructed in just 12 weeks by the British Army. It is very steep in places but is a fine road, provided it is graded each season after the rains.

Shortly after Malawi 's Independence in 1964 the Nyika was made into the country's first National Park and the management of it was transferred from the Forestry Department to a new Department of Wildlife. There had been silting problems on good agricultural areas near the Lake shore and much of this had originated from landslips on the slopes of the Nyika escarpment. The protection given to the area was intended to secure the water supplies for the country below.

The period from the inception of the park to the early 1980s was a period of optimism, with some suggestion that protection measures were making headway, although game numbers were under continual pressure from poaching. In 1978 the park was enlarged threefold to incorporate the steep escarpments and woodlands in all directions. It involved moving around 5000 people. Not everyone was unhappy, since the isolation of the more remote villages from markets, schools and medical help was a daily problem. However, some felt the compensation was inadequate and a few deeply resented the move and probably had undue pressure put on them in Malawi 's darkest period of totalitarian government. The following 20 years was less positive for the park. Chronic under-funding made the management of such a large park, from essentially one poorly equipped management centre, very difficult. Achieving continuity in experienced staffing was a problem. More recently protection seems to be gaining strength once more but the pressure of a much increased population around the perimeter of the park makes the challenge even greater.

Many of the current park staff are from the families of earlier staff and local villagers. Local families such as Mfuni, Nyirenda, Mtumbuka, Msiska, Moyo, Mkanda, Munthali, Mkandawire, Mghogho , Mwalukomo and many others (note the prefix M and N, indicating a family name, being common) are well represented in the management structure. They represent continuity in a small community that has witnessed much change over the past fifty or so years and have shown great commitment to supporting conservation in the park. Their fathers before them made the magnificent Nyika National Park a possibility, aided by the vision and experience of a succession of ex-patriot British government officers, who showed great commitment to doing an excellent and meaningful job in a country where they were unlikely to retire but would always be offered a very warm welcome by the Malawians on future visits.

Some of the historical information has been adapted from The Nyika Experience, published by the Wildlife Society of Malawi. It is well worth the read for anyone with an historical interest in the Nyika and can be obtained by following this link.

Continued ...