Sudden Death Among Oldest Baobab Trees

Researchers link the 1,000 year old trees deaths to climate change.

Baobab tree silhouetted against a Botswana sunset. Steve Jurvetson. CC 2.0

Baobab tree silhouetted against a Botswana sunset. Steve Jurvetson. CC 2.0

Over the past few decades many baobab trees have died suddenly in South Africa.

The baobab is a tall bulbous tree native to the savanna region in Africa and is known for being the largest and longest living flowering tree. While its usual lifespan is between 1,100 and 2,500 years, baobabs can survive for up to 3,000 years. The fruit of the tree is edible and extremely nutritious, containing 10 times the vitamin C of an orange. The leaves of the baobab can also be consumed and its bark can be used for robe, musical instrument strings, baskets, and waterproof hats.

With their incredible thousand year lifespan baobab trees are normally “very difficult to kill,” according to Kruger Park, a natural habitat for the tree in South Africa. The park also stated that the trees “can be burnt, or stripped of their bark, and they will just form new bark and carry on growing. When they do die, they simply rot from the inside and suddenly collapse, leaving a heap of fibres.”

Although more analysis is needed to solidly prove their hypothesis, many researchers believe that the sudden deaths of many baobabs is due at least in part to climate change. According  Adrian Patrut, a chemist at Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania who co-authored a study on baobabs, the “trees are under pressure by temperature increases and drought,” likely do to the effects of climate change.  

“Such a disastrous decline is very unexpected, Patrut told NPR. “It's a strange feeling, because these are trees which may live for 2,000 years or more, and we see that they're dying one after another during our lifetime. It's statistically very unlikely.”

Among the trees that have died are four of the biggest baobabs and nine of the oldest.

But the recent demise of the baobabs is not only an environmental problem. Baobabs have immense cultural significance in communities in southern Africa and are often used as shrines and meeting places. There is an indigenous myth that the first baobabs were arrogant about their size and lorded over the smaller plants. As a punishment they were torn from the ground by the gods who planted them wrong side up with their roots in the air. According to legend, evil spirits now haunt the plant’s white flowers and anyone who plucks one will be killed by a lion.

In another story a hollow baobab in Zambia was home to a giant python who was worshipped by the local people and answered their prayers for rain, good crops and hunting. Later, a white hunter came and shot the python leading to terrible consequences. According to the story the python’s ghost still haunts the tree.

While the future for baobabs certainly looks grim, there is hope that the current increase in awareness surrounding baobab death will result in monitoring of the trees which in turn will do more to ensure their health and survival.

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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