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National Park Profile (Evolution Special): Lake Malawi National Park 

It has been said that the importance of Lake Malawi National Park to the study of evolution is comparable to that of the Galapagos Islands. So what’s so important about this region, and what is being done to protect it?

Image courtesy of Sarah&Joachim

Where is Lake Malawi National Park?

Lake Malawi itself is found between the borders of the East African countries of Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania in the Western Rift Valley, covering a total area of approximately 22,490km2, making it the 3rd largest lake in Africa and the 8th largest in the world. Lake Malawi is also the 2nd deepest lake in Africa. Lake Malawi National Park is located to the south of this massive lake, occupying an area of about 94km2. Despite its name, a significant area of the park is constituted of land with only 7km2 of aquatic zone.

Why was Lake Malawi National Park set up?

The park was established in 1980 in order to protect the important ecosystem, including the largely endemic fish species found here. In addition, the management plan is designed to protect the livelihoods of local people in the surrounding area, many of whom rely on the lake for food, water etc., especially those in landlocked Malawi.

Why is the park so important to the study of evolution?

Lake Malawi is an area of outstanding natural beauty and considered a key area of specialized evolution, particularly in respect to its rich variety of endemic fish species, thought to be around 90%. Its waters are said to be home to more species of fish than any other fresh water area on Earth, thought to be somewhere between 500 to 1000.

Most diversity is found within the family Cichlidae, with all but 5 of the estimated 350 individual species thought to be endemic to Lake Malawi, all of which can be found in the National Park itself also. This amounts to about 30% of all the cichlid species known to exist. The cichlids of Lake Malawi are considered to be equally important to science as the finches of the Galapagos made famous by Darwin, and the honeycreepers of Hawaii.

Due to its significance to science and the study of evolution, the park was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1984. It was also recommended at the time that the park’s boundaries be extended to include more of the lake.

Image courtesy of mendel

Which other species can be found in the park?

The lake is also home to a variety of other species, including hippo, baboon, vervet monkey, bush pig, crocodiles, warthog, the occasional elephant and a rich variety of bird species including fish eagle and white-throated cormorants.

Which different habitats can be found within the park?

Habitats vary from rocky shoreline, sandy beaches, wooded hillsides and swamps and lagoons. The water area of the park is designed to protect the most important elements contributing to the biodiversity of the park, including all major vegetation and breeding sites of the cichlids. The waters of Lake Malawi are renowned for being incredibly clear.

What are the main threats to the ecosystem?

Threats to the ecosystem include overfishing from an increasing population surrounding the lake, introduced fish species threatening endemics, pollution from boats, and siltation from denuded hills.

What is being done to protect the park and ecosystem?

A major priority in the management of the park is to work collaboratively with local communities due to their reliance on the lake. An established Wildlife Policy means that management must work with local communities in and around the park to share in the benefits and responsibilities.

By Alex Prior

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