Published: Wed, June 13, 2018
Medicine | By Brett Sutton

Africa's iconic baobab trees are dying at an alarming rate

Africa's iconic baobab trees are dying at an alarming rate

Baobab trees commonly form multiple stems, and though the walls of these stems, or trunks, can hold large amounts of water, numerous stems are hollow.

Overall, five of the six largest baobabs either died or their oldest parts significantly deteriorated.

"Pretty much every baobab tree in Southern Africa is covered in the healed scars of past elephant attacks, which speaks to the trees' incredible fix ability", said David Baum, a University of Wisconsin botanist who is familiar with the new study and contributed to a recent Biodiversity International publication cataloguing the trees' attributes, in an email.

For centuries - millennia even - they've towered over the savannah like giants from another world, but their long, nearly immortal watch is at last beginning to fade. "The die-off has other immediate causes, like insects, but a 500-year-old tree has experienced a lot of insect outbreaks and lived through them".

The African baobab trees are dying, or perhaps dead already, a new research reveals.

A similar fate befell the Platland tree in South Africa, which the authors call "probably the most promoted and visited African baobab". Instead, the researchers believe climate-change-fueled drought has weakened the trees.

WIKIMEDIA, FERDINAND REUSAfrica's baobab trees, the largest and longest-living flowering plants in the world, are dying at a startling rate, according to a study published yesterday (June 11) in Nature Plants.

Some of the oldest and largest baobabs in SA, Zimbabwe‚ Namibia‚ Botswana and Zambia have died abruptly in the past decade‚ says a team of global researchers. The tree started to split in 2016 and collapsed completely the following year.

It's possible that the deaths are part of a natural cycle, though it's hard to say because baobabs decay rapidly and don't leave behind any evidence of previous die-offs.

The iconic trees can reach almost 2,000 years of age.

The oldest tree which suffered the collapse of all its stems was the Panke tree in Zimbabwe‚ estimated to have existed for 2 500 years. They have been surveying the trees since 2005 and have developed a theory of how they grow, while also documenting the losses. Baobabs are particularly reliant on the annual rainy season and need to sip up about 70 to 80 percent of their volume in water to stay upright.

In the mythology of many African peoples, the baobab tree represents life, fertility and appears in heraldic coats of arms of some countries.

"The decline and death of so many large baobabs in recent years is so tragic", Baum says.

The researchers don't know for sure, but they describe the spate of high-profile deaths - the end of trees so grand they each had their own names - is an event of "unprecedented magnitude" that likely points to climate change.

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