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Malawi 2015 Part I: The Majestic Mount Mulanje

As you might have noticed traveling and wildlife photography are my biggest passions. Being a biology teacher I can travel a little longer during my summer holiday. Last year, in the summer of 2014, I went to Malaysia. Borneo and Pulau Tioman to be more specific. In four weeks I was able to see many beautiful animals. I made more than a handful of photographs that I am still proud of.

Choosing the next destination is never easy. There are so many stunning locations to choose from and when travelling with a group of friends we have to find a location we all like. Personnally I keep a list of places I want to visit. Sub-saharan Africa was on top of my list. I was not really choosy when it came to specific countries, because for all the countries there are enough reasons to visit. This time we visited Malawi and Zambia.

We were in Malawi and Zambia from 18 July until 8 August. That means it was winter in the southern hemisphere and the dry season. It was the high season for wildlife photographers looking for big wild, but it was not the perfect season to look for reptiles and amphibians. My goal is to show that there is more than just the big mammals in Africa and that there is more precious wildlife to be protected.

Tea plantations on the way to the Ruo Gorge

This first report is about Mount Mulanje in Malawi. This is an isolated mountain massif in Africa. The Lonely Planet discribes Mount Mulanje as ‘an huge hulk of twisted granite rising majestically from the surrounding plains’. This part of the trip was about reptiles and amphibians. To be honest, it was mostly about the chameleons. I can not speak for the birders in our group, but I think they wanted to see as much as possible. I will also post reports about my adventures in the ‘big game reserves’. I also made a lot of photographs of the big mammals. And one spoiler, we did see the complete ‘Big Five’!

MalawiMountMulanje20150719-1 Variable skink (Trachylepis varia)

 

Likhubula 

Likhubula was the first place we visited on Mount Mulanje. The first thing we noticed was that it was very dry! We wondered how we would ever find reptiles. Finding amphibians seemed impossible.

Lycosa sp.
Our campsite was a very good place to find reptiles. That was comforting! During our stay we found some very good looking reptiles.

Kirk's Rock Agama (Agama kirkii) ID 2 Variable skink (Trachylepis varia) Rainbow skink (Trachylepis margaritifera) Rainbow skink (Trachylepis margaritifera) Variable skink (Trachylepis varia) Cape Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus capensis)

During our first walk Bobby Bok flipped his first rock and found a Herald Snake (Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia). Flipping rocks was rewarding! The snake was putting up a great defensive display. He felt threatened by us. Photographers can be very intimidating. This snake’s venom is not dangerous, but being careful is better for the snake. We always want to release snakes unharmed.

Herald Snake (Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia) Herald Snake (Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia) Herald Snake (Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia)

After photographing the first snake some guys yelled at us. They had a chameleon! Before that Bobby told them that if they found a chameleon that they should tell us. It was a Mellers Chameleon (Trioceros melleri)! I will never for get the happy face of Bobby.
It was time for a photoshoot of the most wanted chameleon of Malawi. This species of chameleon also made an appearece in one of my favorite tv-series by David Attenborough called ‘Life In Cold Blood’. It is one of many famous BBC-documentaries. The Meller’s Chameleon (Trioceros melleri) made a ‘magnificent’ appearence in the episode ‘Dragons Of The Dry’. That scene was also filmed in Malawi!

Meller's Chameleon (Trioceros melleri) Meller's Chameleon (Trioceros melleri) Meller's Chameleon (Trioceros melleri)

Later that day Bobby spotted a Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepsis). We found this chameleon in the same area everyday. I went back more than once. It was a very photogenic chameleon.

Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) in situ Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) in situ Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis) Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis)

We also hiked to the very cold but beautiful waterfall. Our main goal was to find snakes.
An Angola Green Snake (Philothamnus angolensis) did a great job fooling us. When one of our guide spotted this snake he thought it was a Green Mamba. We were also not very sure when we saw it. So we did not take any risk and handled the snake with care. The snake was non-venomous, but with the beautiful green color and blue tongue definitelly a stunning creature.
During the hike we found more reptiles with the Mitchell’s flat lizard (Platysaurus mitchelli) and Kirk’s Rock Agama (Agama kirkii) being highlights for me!

Kirk's Rock Agama (Agama kirkii) Mitchell's flat lizard (Platysaurus mitchelli) Mitchell's flat lizard (Platysaurus mitchelli) Angola Green Snake (Philothamnus angolensis) Angola Green Snake (Philothamnus angolensis)-20AngolaGreenSnake Angola Green Snake (Philothamnus angolensis) The very cold waterfall Peters' Worm Snake (Leptotyphlops scutifrons)

Amphibians!

There was enough water in the area, mainly because of human activity in the area. Thanks to this we were able to see beautiful frogs.

Common Reed Frog (Hyperolius viridiflavus) Common Reed Frog (Hyperolius viridiflavus) Spotted Reed Frog (Hyperolius substriatus) Spotted Reed Frog (Hyperolius substriatus)

Ruo Gorge 

One of the great things about an isolated mountain massif in Africa is that it is home to many endemic species. The Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps) and the Mulanje Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjensis) are endemic to Mount Mulanje in Malawi. That means that this chameleon only occurs on this isolated mountain massif. Both species of chameleon were the main reptile targets to find and photograph.
After building camp near the dam it was time to search for beautiful animals.  Moloney's White-collared Monkey (Cercopithecus mitis ssp. moloneyi) MalawiMountMulanje20150722-45 MalawiMountMulanje20150722-46 Variable skink (Trachylepis varia)

Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps) 

The IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species considers the Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon as Endangered. That is because it occurs in a small area of the remaining evergreen montane forest. It is estimated that up to a half of it’s habitat has already been lost. The numbers of this specie will be subject to additional declines because of loss and fragmentation of their habitat.
It all sounds very pessimistic, but Bobby Bok found the first Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps) very soon. That night and the following night he found seventeen Mulanje Pygmy Chameleons. I felt blind next to him.

Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps) Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps) Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps) Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps) Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps) Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps)

Mulanje Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjensis)

The IUCN Red List Of Threatened Species considers the Mulanje Chameleon as Endangered for the same reasons as the Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon because they share the same habitat.

This species of chameleon took more effort to find. Many Mulanje Pygmy Chameleons were found, but not a single Mulanje Chameleon. On the last night Bobby and I went looking for the Mulanje Chameleon. We were very determined to find at least one of them.
After ours of searching Bobby saw something. It looked a bit like a folded leaf. He asked me about my opinion. In my opinion it looks like a folded leaf, but I was not sure. It looked a little bit prommising. Bobby decided just to have a look. He became very euphoric. It was a female Mulanje Chameleon! After packing it up to have a better look, and standing from an higher angle, he saw a male Mulanje Chameleon! Two, a male and female, sleeping so close to each other.

Mulanje Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjensis)

After a few photographs we went back to the tent. Well, not before getting lost after being a few meters from the trail. We decided to look for more chameleons in the same area. It was dark, so it was hard to see and we lost our orientation. After being stupid, we decided to use the GPS. Luckily we both marked the Mulanje Chameleon place in our GPS.

The next morning we went back with Dieuwertje and Jasper to have a day time ‘photo and film shoot’.

Mulanje Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjensis) Mulanje Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjensis) Mulanje Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjensis)

When we packed our stuff to go back to Likhubula and walked back we stopped for a short moment. During this short break I saw a Mulanje Chameleon crossing the trail! I found my first chameleon this trip! This individual had a scar on his back. He was probably bitten by a snake.

Mulanje Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjensis) Mulanje Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjensis) Mulanje Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjensis)

Frog surprise!

Even the Ruo Gorge, located on the more moist side of Mount Mulanje, was very dry. During a night search we were very lucky. Bobby found a very beautiful Yellow-spotted Tree Frog (Leptopelis flavomaculatus). The name does not need any explanation if you see the photos.
We did not see many amphibians, but we still managed to see a handful of species in this very dry environment. The Ruo Gorge will probably be a ‘frog paradise’ in the wet or rainy season. Yellow-spotted Tree Frog (Leptopelis flavomaculatus) Yellow-spotted Tree Frog (Leptopelis flavomaculatus) Yellow-spotted Tree Frog (Leptopelis flavomaculatus) ID 7

Lujeri 

We also went to Lujeri. It is a place near the Ruo Gorge. It is surrounded by tea plantations and it has very suitible places for frogs. We did find many stunning and sometimes loud frogs that night!

Red-legged Running Frog (Kassina maculata) Common Reed Frog (Hyperolius viridiflavus) ID 8

In Love with Mount Mulanje

Even in the dry season Mount Mulanje is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Not just because of the animals, but also for the beauty of the surroundings. One night at the Ruo Gorge I saw the most beautiful constellation ever, complete with the milky way. This ‘behind the scenes’ photo and another phone photo shows the beauty of this mountain massif.

Me looking at a stunning panorama Ruo Gorge taken with Samsung Galaxy S5 Plus

I hope this report has at least ‘only a little contribution’ to the protection of this very special mountain massif. Two endemic and very beautiful (and sadly endangered) species of chameleon need their evergreen montane forest habitat on the slopes of this mountain massif. This habitat needs good protection!

One sad note

Mount Mulanje had so many highlights. Finding a Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica) would have been an absolute highlight. I really want to see a cobra in the wild. We found a male and a female next to the road. Unfortunately one of them was dead and the other was still alive. As you can see on the ‘snapshot’ the living one was in a very bad condition. We put her out of her misery with a rock. We still don’t know if it was a roadkill or maybe a kill on purpose. Local people don’t like snakes. They kill snakes if they can, venomous or not.
I can imagine that you do not want your children to get bitten, but I think scaring them away should be enough. Snakes just defend themselves. There is a lot to win in ‘snake conservation’.

A snapshot of a Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica) DOR

If you do not want to miss my next report about Malawi you can follow me on social media. My next report will be about the Zomba Plateau in Malawi. The links to my Facebook Page and other social media are at the bottom of this page.

List

Frogs

  • African Common Toad (Amietophrynus gutturalis) – photo not included in the report –
  • Common Platanna (Xenopus laevis) – photo not included in the report –
  • Common Reed Frog (Hyperolius viridiflavus)
  • Müller’s platanna (Xenopus muelleri) – photo not included in the report –
  • Red-legged Running Frog (Kassina maculata)
  • Spotted Reed Frog (Hyperolius substriatus)
  • Yellow-spotted Tree Frog (Leptopelis flavomaculatus)

Lizards

  • Cape Dwarf Gecko (Lygodactylus capensis)
  • Flap-necked Chameleon (Chamaeleo dilepis)
  • Kirk’s Rock Agama (Agama kirkii)
  • Meller’s Chameleon (Trioceros melleri)
  • Mitchell’s flat lizard (Platysaurus mitchelli)
  • Mulanje Chameleon (Nadzikambia mlanjensis)
  • Mulanje Pygmy Chameleon (Rhampholeon platyceps)
  • Rainbow skink (Trachylepis margaritifera)
  • Sundevall’s Writhing Skink (Lygosoma sundevalli) – photo not included in the report –
  • Variable skink (Trachylepis varia)

Snakes

  • Angola Green Snake (Philothamnus angolensis)
  • Herald Snake (Crotaphopeltis hotamboeia)
  • Mozambique Spitting Cobra (Naja mossambica) DOR
  • Peters’ Worm Snake (Leptotyphlops scutifrons)

The source of this list is Herpsafari.nl by Bobby Bok

Special thanks

I want to thank my friends for their company and finding some of the beautiful animals I photographed for this report. I also want to thank them for doing the planning of the trip.

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© 2017 Nature & Wildlife Photography by Ronald Zimmerman

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