What in the world killed some of Africa’s oldest trees?

12 Jun 2018

Row of baobab trees. Image: Tetyana Dotsenko/Shutterstock

Some of Africa’s oldest trees, which have existed for thousands of years, have suddenly started to die off for mysterious reasons, but an answer may be in sight.

There appears to be an environmental disaster occurring in the African savannah and, while it doesn’t seem to be having a noticeable effect on the region as a whole, the news of its victims is still devastating.

According to the BBC, a paper published to Nature Plants by an international team of researchers has documented how, over the past 12 years, most of the oldest and largest African baobab trees have died off.

The trees are distinctive for their enormous size, often reaching out in widths equivalent to a house, and can rise up as high as a multi-storey building.

Their thick trunks ascending skyward are devoid of branches, but at their tops is a covering of green vegetation that sadly now seems to be a threatened species.

How these trees – found in Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zambia, some nearly 2,500 years old – have suddenly died off seemed to be a mystery, but now the research team believes their demise is a visible sign of climate change.

Out of 19 trees analysed by the team since 2005, nine of the 13 oldest and five of the six largest baobabs were either completely dead or their oldest parts had collapsed.

Despite these trees having many stems and trunks of different ages, the stems of many had died suddenly.

‘Very sad to see them dying’

Speaking of the team’s findings, Dr Adrian Patrut of Babeş-Bolyai University in Romania said: “We suspect that the demise of monumental baobabs may be associated at least in part with significant modifications of climate conditions that affect southern Africa in particular.

“However, further research is necessary to support or refute this supposition.”

Describing his reaction to the findings, Patrut added: “It’s shocking and very sad to see them dying.”

The baobab has a long history in the region, with the Kruger National Park in South Africa describing the tree as being big enough to shelter 40 people inside its trunk. At various times, these trees have been used as a shop, a prison, a house, a storage barn and a bus shelter.

They have also been considered very important as a source of sustenance as they hold large stores of water, while also bearing considerable amounts of edible fruit.

Updated, 11.55am, 12 June 2018: This article was updated to clarify figures with regard to the number of trees analysed by the research team.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic