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SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION SOCIETY NYIKA EXPLORATION STUDY (1999)

MALAWI

(This Report appears with the kind permission of the Scientific Exploration Society) 

The Nyika National Park in Northern Malawi is home to a rich biodiversity of flora and fauna, despite substantial and increasing poaching. Very little base line research has been conducted in the Park and large parts of the Park remain unexplored. 

In conjunction with Biosearch Nyika a team of twelve members of the Society spent four weeks in the Park in September - October.  The team was multi-disciplined and the main thrust of the expedition was a termite survey, an aquatic project and a large mammal survey.

While results are still being analysed preliminary recordings have shown that a new genus of termite and several new termite species have been discovered by the entomological team. Entomologists at the Natural History Museum are especially excited about these finds as so much research has been done in East Africa that it was thought unlikely that any more new species would be found there. Several new records for aquatic invertebrate species will almost certainly be identified and possibly even new species discovered although these results are still being analysed by David Bowden. Philip Watson led the large mammal survey and initiated the investigation of new sampling methods.

The overall impression of the Nyika Plateau is that of poaching activity. Indeed the expedition personnel were involved in a number of fairly serious incidents involving poachers, several of which resulted in rounds being fired by the scouts. They also had a narrow escape when a fire lit by the poachers threatened to engulf their Base Camp. Very little large game was seen in this part of the Park due to the poaching activity and the Park is in urgent need of more resources to tackle this problem.

The exemplary quality and quantity of work that the expedition was able to carry out was greatly facilitated through the backing of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who sponsored four scientists to join the team. These scientists included two entomologists, a veterinary practitioner and an aquatic ecologist.

Expedition Outline

Advance Party / Main body arrival and travel to the Park  4 - 10 September:

The advance party for the expedition (consisting of the Expedition Leader accompanied by the Scientific Co-ordinator) undertook a great deal of planning and purchasing in the two days prior to the main groups arrival. Departure for the Nyika went as planned on 9 September with a stopover at Mzuzu. The final leg of the journey (from Rumphi to Juniper Forest) took place over dirt tracks and certainly added to the feeling of remoteness of the ultimate destination.

Acclimatisation: 11 -12 September:

This period was used to establish base camp, complete safety briefings and establish Standard Operational Procedures for the entire expedition period. Rather alarmingly, the promised scouts had not appeared and this limited the potential area to be covered for the sampling programme. It also transpired that the planned site for the base camp was, in fact, 25km to the south of our actual position, where we had been taken. This effected the planning of the scientific surveys that were to take place.

Phase 1: 12 - 16 September:

The first period of scientific sampling. The large mammal group sampled the area to the south west of the base camp (restricted range due to the absence of scouts) with the termite group sampling the forest itself. The aquatic ecology group sampled catchments within the 3km safety range established in the absence of scouts.

The latter part of the week saw the arrival of three scouts, which increased the flexibility of the sampling teams. Their arrival enabled the first weeks sampling to be successfully completed on schedule.

Admin period: 17 - 18 September:

This period was utilized to make a stores-run to Mzuzu, as well as to plan the next stage and switch team members. It was established that all team members favoured a move to the site of the originally planned base camp. 

Phase 2: 19 - 23 September: 

The move to the new base camp proved to be a considerable logistical undertaking (particularly as one of the vehicles allocated had to be used to evacuate the expedition cook to Chelinda suffering from a virus). The large mammal group trekked to the new base camp during the three-day period taken to move all stores and personnel to the new site. The sampling stage of this phase was therefore relatively short (20-23 September), however all groups achieved their objectives.

Phase 3: 24 - 30 September:

The final sampling phase was utilised by all three groups to complete their sampling regimes. It would appear from initial feedback that all groups were satisfied with their sampling programme and certainly felt enough data was gathered to produce some meaningful results. 

R & R: 1-4 October:

A couple of days were spent in Chintheche, on the shores of Lake Malawi, which provided an excellent recovery period from the rigours of the plateau, prior to departure on 5 October.

Science:

Both the termite group and the aquatic scientists gathered some extremely useful scientific data. The analysis of the samples gathered by the aquatic group has yet to begin in earnest, however it is certain to produce some new records and even new species. Both of these projects will provide invaluable data to the biodiversity for the Nyika.

Also investigated during the expedition were herpetological, botanical, ornithological and entomological activities.

Conclusion:

The expedition was a great success. The team was of a very high calibre and coped magnificently with the many twists and turns inevitably thrown up by an expedition in Africa. The lasting impression is of a stunningly beautiful area being systematically devastated by poaching where the SES team produced some meaningful data under difficult conditions.