Published: Wed, June 13, 2018
Health Care | By Cedric Leonard

Some of Africa's oldest and biggest baobob trees have died

Some of Africa's oldest and biggest baobob trees have died

Some of the oldest and largest baobab trees in South Africa‚ Zimbabwe‚ Namibia‚ Botswana and Zambia had died in the past decade‚ a team of worldwide researchers said.

This represents a "shocking and dramatic" decline, says the study's co-author, Adrian Patrut of the Babeș-Bolyai University in Romania.

An icon of the African bush, the baobab's swollen trunk and gnarled branches are a familiar sight in the savannahs of southern, east and west Africa. While the cause of the die-off is not yet certain, climate change has already been pegged by the team and by other researchers as the likely cause. "However, further research is necessary to support or refute this supposition", the authors wrote.

"Statistically, it is practically impossible that such a high number of large old baobabs die in such a short time frame due to natural causes", they said.

All were in southern Africa - Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia.

The trees could also be an underappreciated solution to economic development and food security in rural areas, according to research from the Kenya-based World Agroforestry Center. The branches of the tree look as if they are trying to reach out for the sky and look like pillars.

The Panke tree, which was oldest of the dying trees, lived for 2,500 years until its stems collapsed in 2010-2011, according to the study. "Various baobabs have been used as a shop, a prison, a house, a storage barn, and a bus shelter", according to the park.

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The tree serves as a massive store of water, and bears fruit that feeds animals and humans.

The objective of the study was to learn how the trees get so enormous.

They found that the trunk of the baobab grows from not one but multiple core stems.

Scientists are growing increasingly anxious about the status of baobab health across Africa, according to Carla Staver, an expert on savannah ecology at Yale University. “When a tree is damaged to form a hollow, bark can grow into the cavity and eventually start making new wood to fill in the hole.

"When they do die, they simply rot from the inside and suddenly collapse, leaving a heap of fibers, which makes many people think that they don't die at all, but simply disappear", states the website.

"Pretty much every baobab tree in Southern Africa is covered in the healed scars of past elephant attacks, which speaks to the trees' awesome 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.

Patrut began to notice the deaths during a long-term effort to use radiocarbon dating to gauge the ages of major baobabs. This included the Platland baobab and a few trees that appeared, by Patrut's calculations, to be more than 2,000 years old.

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