Chirinda forest, a hidden gem

The big tree

by NORMA TSOPO

CHIRINDA forest – a moist evergreen Zanzibar-Ihambane transitional rainforest, is a colossal ecological treasure trove of rare vegetation, birds, reptiles, insects and mammals.

Valley of Giants

There is no such forest further south on the Africa continent.

The most popular section of this Afromontane forest many be the Valley of Giants with its amazing population of oversized trees among which is the largest red mahogany tree in southern Africa and the tallest native tree in Zimbabwe – the Big Tree whose age is estimated around 600 to 1 000 years although some say it could even be 2 000 years old.

This is only one of many reasons why the forest should be a tourist magnet. But it has more. A bit of something for everyone.

The names of the diverse plant and animal species whose names distinctly show that they were either first identified from this forest on the slopes of Mt Selinda a few 30 kilometres from Chipinge town are testimony to its rich biome.

Naturalist Charles Swynnerton who was appointed manager of the nearby Gungunyana farm in 1900 also left his signature on both botanical, insect, bird and mammal species that he discovered in the area, through their names.

Chirinda strangler fig tree

To tree huggers, it has a rich collection of rare tree species which seldom occur elsewhere in the country like the fluted milk wood which apparently is the dominant canopy species, Chirinda fig, undershrub big-leaf, Chirinda stinkwood, yellow bitter berry and forest strychnos. And one would only be getting started.

On the mammals side there are local races of the mutable sun squirrel (H. m. chirindensis) and red-bellied coast squirrel that is a Selinda mountain squirrel and P. p. swynnertoni as well as the Selinda veld rat which is only known from two other sites in the country.

Birds that were first described from this forest are the strikingly coloured race of red-necked spurfowl (P. a. swynnertoni), a fulvous-coloured race of wailing cisticola, a race of bar-throated Apalis, the smallish, dusky and streaky-throated Swynnerton’s thrush which is endemic to the Eastern Highlands, and a race of olive sunbird.

Chirinda Apalis Pic Zak Polhen

Quite a number of highland bird species reach their southernmost occurrence on the African continent here as well including the aptly named Chirinda Apalis and Swynnerton’s robin – a globally threatened species.

On the reptiles’ end there are worm lizards discovered by Swynnerton like Chirindia swynnertoni and Zygaspis ferox which are endemic to the forest and its vicinity.

In the closely related amphibian family there is the Chirinda toad which is known from Chirinda and in a forest north of Dombé in adjacent Mozambique.

Mount Selinda Acraea mimic

The forest is the only place in the world where the Mount Selinda Acraea mimic butterfly is found.

Something this rich, with rare and endemic species, in a government-reserved forest is thus puzzling not to be consistently on the radar of tourists according to a recent Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe (HAZ) marketing meeting that was exploring efforts to market the eastern highlands to the international market.

Forestry Commission (FC) which manages the forest reserve took part of the blame on their failure to aggressively market it.

It is only being frequented by researchers and people that know what a wonder world it is.

The quasi-government institution that is tasked with protecting the country’s indigenous forests admits that it hasn’t been doing well on that end.

“Indeed the number of tourists who visit the forest have been very poor. We only have a lot of interest in researcher who will be studying indigenous plants and other local occurrences.

“We probably should take part of the blame because we have not be aggressively marketing it to the international traveler,” Philip Tom, FC’s Manicaland provincial manager said.

Tom said while accessibility to the 950 hectare rainforest may be another reason for poor tourist inflows there was need for stronger linkages between it and other tourist destinations.

“It would help if we can package it together with other tourist destinations and its proximity to espungabera border post between Zimbabwe and Mozambique makes is very accessible from that side,” Tom said.