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Is the Famous Baobab Tree Under Threat from Climate Change?

Added July 15, 2018, Under: Environment

If you have ever lived in, worked in or visited Southern Africa, you may well have come across the iconic Baobab Tree.

An old African legend tells a story that a mighty god had a baobab growing in his garden but he grew annoyed with the baobab arrogantly displaying its beautiful foliage – and flung it from paradise to the earth below. It landed upside down, with its roots jutting into the sky and its beautiful foliage buried beneath the ochre earth. This taught the tree a lesson in humility, and those who witnessed it, and this is why it’s known as the “upside down tree”.

Now this tree, also often known as the “tree of life”, is under threat.  Trees affected are those in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Some of the largest and oldest specimens of the tree have been dying with nine of the thirteen oldest trees (aged between one thousand and two thousand five hundred years old) falling over.

A study has been published in the scientific journal Nature Plants with researchers saying:

The baobab trees that are falling over are at the southern range of their distribution.  We believe what is happening is that the climate envelope in which they exist is shifting and so we are not talking about the wholesale extinction of the trees.  Fortunately they are seeing very few juvenile trees being affected.”

What areas do baobab trees inhabit?

They appear in vast stretches of savanna in southern Africa where the climate is extremely dry and arid – the same areas inhabited by elephants, rhinos and other wildlife.

Why do the locals love the baobab tree?

The massive trunk can provide protection from the elements while the leaves, bark, seeds and fruit have a long tradition of being used as food and medicine.

Every part of the baobab tree is valuable – the bark can be turned into rope and clothing, the seeds can be used to make cosmetic oils, the leaves are edible, the trunks can store water and the fruit is extraordinarily rich in nutrients and antioxidants. Women in Africa have turned to the baobab fruit as a natural source of health and beauty for centuries.

The fruit grows in pods and has a tart, sweet taste that dries naturally while the pods are still hanging from the tree. Once the pods are picked and broken open, the pulp is taken out and made into a powder that can easily be packaged and transported.  The fruit does not just have a local value, it now has a growing commercial value worldwide.  When available raw, the baobab fruit powder is rich in antioxidants (especially vitamin C); high in potassium; and comes with plenty of  calcium, magnesium and protein. The rich fiber content acts as a good prebiotic, helping to maintain healthy bacteria in the gut.  The powder can be used in smoothies, yogurt and in many more ways.

Why is the baobab known as the “tree of life”?

It is an inspiring and positive symbol of life in a landscape where little else can thrive.  Over time, adapting to its environment.  The baobab is a succulent, meaning that during the rainy season it absorbs and stores water in its vast trunk.  This enables the tree to produce the nutrient dense fruit during the dry season when perhaps nothing else is available.

Growing in thirty two different countries, the baobab trees can live for up to five thousand years, reaching a height of up to thirty meters and a girth of fifty meters while providing shelter, food and water for animals and humans.

Long may it continue to thrive – and overcome any current environmental threat to its future existence. 

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