Photographs © Kirsten Siex / Sarah Durant / Charles Foley / Tim Davenport

Southern Highlands Conservation Programme

Helping to conserve threatened habitats and species across southwest Tanzania


The Southern Highlands Conservation Programme (SHCP) was set up by the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2000 to conserve important habitats in southwest Tanzania and the flora and fauna that rely on them. Tanzania’s Southern Highlands lie between Lakes Nyasa (Malawi) and Tanganyika on the junction of the eastern and western arms of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. The region is distinguished by unique plateau grasslands, montane and riverine forests, rivers and crater lakes up to 3,000 metres above sea level. Sites of particular interest include Kitulo Plateau, Mt Rungwe, Livingstone Mts, Mbizi, Mporoto, Mbeya Range, Ukinga, Umalila, Ufipa, Ludewa and the Southern Tanganyika forests of Loasi, Lwafi and Kalambo Falls.  


The Southern Highlands are home to over 2 million people, most of whom rely on natural resources for food, medicines, building materials and income. The mountains and forests are also vital to national and local economies through soil conservation and water catchment. The Highlands serve four of the twelve main drainage basins in Tanzania - the Nyasa, Ruaha, Kilombero and Rukwa - and their catchment properties influence the livelihoods of a quarter of the country’s population. The Southern Highlands are ethnically diverse. Many cultures are closely tied to their environment and the landscapes have great traditional significance.

At least 120 animals and plants are endemic to the area, many recently discovered by WCS. Others are restricted to Tanzania or the Southern Rift, and many are considered globally threatened. The montane forests of Mt Rungwe and Livingstone in Kitulo are home to Africa’s rarest monkey the kipunji (Rungwecebus kipunji) and Africa’s rarest forest antelope Abbott’s duiker (Cephalophus spadix). The region’s plateau grasslands such as Kitulo Plateau are unique centres of endemism. The Southern Highlands fall within one of just 25 ‘Global Biodiversity Hotspots’, they constitute a global ‘Ecoregion’, contain six ‘Important Bird Areas’, and are a ‘National Site of Special Conservation Significance’.


Natural habitats across the Southern Highlands are severely threatened by unsustainable land-use practices and inappropriate resource exploitation. Natural forests and grasslands are being cleared for commercial agriculture. Forests are being felled for timber and charcoal, and fires are widespread and uncontrolled. Hunting of mammals and birds is common and there is a growing and unsustainable trade in wildlife, especially reptiles, frogs and orchids but also mammals. Management of natural habitat is hampered by limited financial and technical resources. Declining forest cover poses serious threats to the region’s vital water supplies and cultural identity. Only now through the work of WCS is there a wider appreciation of the area’s biodiversity and traditional values, but the challenges of combining a growing human population, infrastructural development and environmental integrity remain.


The SHCP has a full-time staff of 35 including 31 Tanzanians, 22 of whom are from the Southern Highlands area. Many more are employed from villages on a part-time basis. With offices in Mbeya Town, the SHCP employs a wide-ranging approach rooted in science, social awareness and policy, and carries out a variety of research, community conservation and protected area management initiatives. WCS is the only international conservation organisation working in this large and globally significant area.


The unique flora and fauna of all the forests and grasslands of the Southern Highlands are being characterised through systematic biodiversity surveys of plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates. It was during these surveys that the kipunji, Africa’s first new genus of monkey for 83 years, was first discovered by WCS in 2003. As a consequence, Mt Rungwe and Kitulo are now two of the most well-known protected areas in southern Tanzania.

Key species, such as the kipunji, are also the target of specific research aimed at monitoring their populations and understanding the threats to them. The highly endangered Abbott’s Duiker is the focus of a novel conservation strategy targeting hunters. There is an emphasis on mammalian carnivores (including servals, leopards and otters) that examines and monitors the distribution, threats and status of all species across southern Tanzania. Chimpanzees are the focus of research and monitoring along the southern shores of Lake Tanganyika, and the first nationwide census and assessment of their habitat has been performed.

At the habitat level, research on important ecosystems, such as forests, grasslands and watercourses, are identifying the threats to them. The growing problems of exotic and invasive species are also being studied. Geographical Information Systems and Satellite Imagery help in the analysis, mapping and monitoring of land use. Exploration has long been an important part of the WCS approach and areas not investigated scientifically are being surveyed in this way, in order to guide survey work on the ground.

In-depth socio-economic analyses accompany biodiversity research in order to determine the extent of community use of, and degree of dependence on, natural resources. Research includes studies on hunting, fishing, logging, charcoal manufacture and natural medicines. A plant herbarium, the only one focusing on southwest Tanzania has been set up in Mbeya. The results of the first investigation in 2001 of a growing trade in orchid tubers were recognized by government with the creation of the new Kitulo National Park, the first park in tropical Africa set aside for its floral significance. Orchid harvesting continues to be monitored.

Working with Regional and District Authorities and communities, the first indigenous tree nurseries have been set up in Rungwe, Mbeya and Sumbawanga. Over 400,000 indigenous tree seedlings have been raised and planted since 2002, in order to carry out forest enrichment planting. The SHCP also provides support to District and Regional Authorities and Tanzania National Parks on tourism development, forest management, awareness raising through National Exhibition and Environment Days, workshop provision, community support projects and technical assistance on research, habitat and protected area management.

A strong environmental education component reaches tens of thousands of people. This targets schools, the youth, village environment committees and women’s groups. Village environment rooms have been set up, education materials provided and assistance given on environmental curricula. Small development grants provide support to villages adjacent to sites of conservation concern. A tourism development strategy is being designed that puts an emphasis on conservation and village benefits.

a small grants initiative provides support to Tanzanian NGOs in activities as diverse as tourism development, education, the adoption of fuel-efficient stoves, capacity building, tree planting and natural forest management. The future of conservation in Tanzania lies primarily with Tanzanians. The SHCP puts emphasis, therefore, on training and capacity building, both for its staff as well as other individuals, organisations and institutions. The SHCP continues to raise awareness both nationally and internationally of the importance of the area, its people, habitats and species.

Key partners include District and Regional governments; Tanzania National Parks (TANAPA); the Forest and Beekeeping Division of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism; the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, USA; the Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis, USA; Museo Tridentino di Scienze Naturali, Trento, Italy, Manchester Metropolitan University, Manchester, UK.

Link to WCS Southern Highlands information

Link to Southern Highlands REDD Readiness website

Photographs © Kirsten Siex / Sarah Durant / Charles Foley / Tim Davenport

Photographs © Tim Davenport © WCS 2010