A new survey of baobab trees throughout southern Africa has shown that most of the two dozen largest and oldest trees in the region have died in the past decade or are currently very ill. While human-caused physical damage to individual trees may explain specific die-offs, researchers believe that climate change, which is occurring faster in southern Africa than many places on Earth, may be the most significant factor in the trees’ poor health.

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Baobab trees on a dusty rural road

“Such a disastrous decline is very unexpected,” chemist and survey organizer Adrian 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.”

The iconic baobab are culturally important for many communities. A common myth explains the baobab’s unique shape as a result of gods punishing the tree for its vanity in its extraordinary size, with the baobab being uprooted and flipped upside down with its “roots” facing upwards. Baobabs can be cultivated for their nutritious leaves and fruit and may prove to be a source of economic development. The trees are also ecologically significant, providing habitat and food for a wide variety of mammals, birds, insects and reptiles.

Related: Can this tree provide financial security for 10 million people in Africa?

Because of their unique shape and growth patterns that distort their tree rings, accurate dating of a baobab is difficult. Despite some questioning of Patrut’s methods, researchers nonetheless recognize that baobab die-offs is an unsettling trend that deserves more study. As southern Africa likely faces intense temperature increases and drought, the urgency to understand and better protect the baobabs is clear. “The decline and death of so many large baobabs in recent years is so tragic,” ecologist David Baum told NPR. “It is heartbreaking that any should die — but even worse that we might be seeing the beginning of the end of all the giant baobabs on the planet.”


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