Baobab: 2000-Year-Old Trees Are Mysteriously Dying

by Meenal Bhatia

Baobab: 2000-Year-Old Trees Are Mysteriously Dying

June 4, 2021

The Mahafaly plateau, home to the baobab trees, in south-eastern Madagascar, one of the driest regions in the country, experienced an extreme drought in the 1920s and 1930s which led to the death of thousands of people.

The survivors, worried about the possibility of such an event striking again in the future, noticed a tree, which was struck by lightning and after hollowing out further by hand could provide them with a water tank to collect a precious resource during the rare periods of rainfall, similar to what Bangalore has been doing.

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Baobab Trees Save The Day

The baobab tree, an iconic species of trees that can live for as many as 3000 years, kept the water fresh, as if out of a miracle. The tree’s wood, which already has a very high-water content, transformed the daily struggle for this essential resource in the villages and each family started guarding its own tree.

Africa’s “tree of life” today forms an integral part in people’s livelihoods. The leaves are used in traditional medicine to cure infectious diseases, the fruit is high in nutrients and is used to make health foods and the trunk, as you now know, stores water which can be harvested by thirsty travellers.

The Mysterious Deaths of Baobab

Unfortunately, these miraculous trees which are known to live for thousands of years, have begun to die off abruptly in the 21st century. Some of Africa’s oldest and biggest baobab trees have already died and scientists fear that the rest may not be around for a long time.

These humongous trees, normally aged between 1,100 and 2,500 years and in some cases as wide as a bus, have possibly fallen victim of human activities. Scientists have speculated that the rapid die-off is because of dehydration from global warming.

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Ancient as they are, baobab trees can be cultivated, as some communities in West Africa have done for generations. Some farmers are discouraged by the fact that they can take 15-20 years to fruit – but recent research has shown by grafting the branches of fruiting trees to seedlings they can fruit in five years.

The situation is grim: There are nine species of baobab in the world, the African mainland and the Arabian Peninsula have two, and Australia has one while Madagascar, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots, is home to six.

Three species of baobab in Madagascar are now on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species while the remaining three species are “near threatened”, a startling thought for the villagers who now fear that the trees that they consider as “sacred” may not be around for a long time.

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Descriptive representation of how the Baobab trees prove to be useful to the ecosystem

Loss of the Baobab Habitat

The oldest are valuable players in dry deciduous forests, deserts, and savannas from Africa to Arabia to Australia. Baobabs, also known as the “upside down trees” are native to Madagascar, mainland Africa and Australia. They are among the most long-lived seed-producing trees in the world.

But, in the early 21st century, baobabs in southern Africa began to die off rapidly possibly as a result of dehydration from global warming.

Because of habitat loss, three species (A. Grandidieri, A. Perrieri and A. Suarezensis) are now listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, including the iconic baobabs of the famous Avenue of the Baobabs (A. Grandidieri) in the Menabe region.

Since 2005, 9 of the 13 oldest African baobab specimens and 5 of the 6 largest trees have died or suffered the collapse and death of their largest or oldest stems.

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