The Mysterious Life (and Death) of Africa’s Oldest Trees

The Mysterious Life (and Death) of Africa’s Oldest Trees

A shocking study published in 2018 found that some of the most beautiful, and famous, baobab trees are dying. What will this mean for the people who depend on them—and for the planet?

PART 1

The baobab trunks are thick and bulbous and fat. The bark is shiny and red. The trees don’t sway. They don’t whistle with the wind. Movement is slow and barely perceptible, if they move at all. Baobabs can grow to 100 feet tall; their diameters can reach up to 40 feet. For the most part their leaves appear for just a few months during the wet season and look like the unnatural hair that emerges from a chia pet. Their most dynamic motions are during the roughly five minutes at dusk when their night-blooming flowers open for the bats and moths who drink their pollen, and in death, when they topple suddenly and dramatically in just a few hours.

In June 2018, a study was published by the scientific journal Nature Plants; it stated simply that the baobabs are dying. The scientists involved do not know why, but they suspect increased drought and climate change. For decades, villagers in Botswana have witnessed the depletion of baobabs because of human encroachment—cattle grazing and farmland have taken over areas once roamed by hunter-gatherers. The introduction of agriculture and changes to the soil have produced a negative effect on the trees. These trees, which are some of the oldest on the planet, are rooted so solidly into the African horizon, they appear invincible, as if the sun couldn’t set without the silhouettes of their gnarly branches reshaping the line where land meets sky.

Baobabs are scattered throughout the Okavango Delta, a vast inland river delta in northern Botswana. They aren’t the biggest baobabs or the most well-known, but for the people who are indigenous to the region, there is an understanding that the tree equals life, literally and figuratively. Their fruit—large, fuzzy olive-green pods that, cracked open, deliver sweet-tart chunks to suck on—can feed families during drought. They stand watch over charging warthogs, startled giraffes, yawning hippos, screaming hyenas, ravenous packs of wild dogs, and lions, cheetahs, and elephants. They provide nests for vultures and weavers and hives for bees. They’re also vessels for lore passed down from generation to generation of tribal communities. Some folk tales are positive: if you drink water in which baobab seeds have been soaked, you will be safe from a crocodile attack. Some are not so positive: if you eat a baobab flower, you will be eaten by a lion. Some are practical: if you eat baobab fruit or leaves, which are full of fiber and antioxidants, you will grow strong like the tree. But today fewer and fewer tales of the baobab are passed down. 

Chapman’s Baobab, one of the continent’s largest trees until it fell in 2016. It’s still alive: green shoots have emerged from it over the past two years.

To get to the delta and see some of Botswana’s baobabs, I am flown in a small, single-propeller bush plane from Maun—the fifth-largest city in the country, with a population of 56,000. From hundreds of feet in the air, the rivers ebb and flow below, veining through lush growth even in the dry season. Elephants can be observed munching leaves. Even from afar, the baobab maintains its prominence. The plane lands on a dirt strip with a wind sock and dry vegetation. I am greeted by Diesel, 38, a manager of Bushman Plains, a camp in the middle of the Okavango Delta where I’ll stay. The camp is unique, in that it’s the only Bushman-owned one in Botswana. He is there to drive me the two hours into the bush in order to see the trees. His father had been a guide, his uncles are guides, his cousins are guides as well. When Diesel was young, he explains, he did not want to be a guide; he wanted to travel. At 25, he became a manager for a mineral-exploration company in Mozambique. He stayed in camps, dodging landmines left over from the Portuguese Colonial War and the civil war that followed independence, testing for any type of mineral or metal that could be extracted from the earth. After eight years, he returned home. His father was dying. Back in his village, at his mother’s home, Diesel decided mineral exploration was not the type of life he wanted. He returned to guide work.

We pass zebras, warthogs, giraffes, wildebeests, African buffalo, hippos. Diesel points out the birds and identifies each: African rail, coppery-tailed coucal, black coucal, red-chested flufftail, African crake, black crake, chirping cisticola, Luapula cisticola, purple swamphen, Allen’s gallinule.

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“Surprise,” he says and lets the word linger, expecting a response. I look around for wildebeests or zebras or a rainbow-chested bird.

“Surprise,” he says again. “Surprise, baobab.”

I look right and left and then, finally, up. And there, in front of me, towering above, is a young baobab, maybe a few hundred years old, with a giant divot in its trunk like a gaping maw, as if it is screaming. The trunk has been so chewed by elephants that it is on the verge of being knocked over. Baobabs, you see, are especially wet trees, and because of the moisture in their trunks, elephants will suck the water out of the bark toward the end of the dry season, using their tusks to rip through the bark and sometimes chewing right through them. Because of poaching and conflict across range states in southern Africa, there are more elephants in Botswana than in any other African country. As nature writer Richard Mabey wrote in his 2017 book of botanical history, The Cabaret of Plants, “It was in mainland Africa that that baobab met its mammalian doppelgänger. Elephants attacked them with a ferocity that seemed to go beyond the simple satisfaction of big appetites. They trashed them. They tore off whole branches, devoured the leaves, stripped the bark entirely from the lower parts of the trunk to reach the moisture underneath, and often knocked the smallest trees flat.”

I get out of the truck and circle the damaged baobab, imagining what it might have looked like when whole. I am reminded of the Khoi and San mythology around the tree, that during creation the gods gave the baobab to a hyena to plant, and he was so upset with the gift of an ugly tree that he threw it to the ground upside down, roots open to the sky. Though damaged, this baobab, like all the others, looks like an experiment gone wrong, a first draft of a tree, more like a gnarled, gentle giant from an ancient fable. While the redwoods and sequoias I grew up with in California appear mighty, silent, intimidating, and stoic—very treelike—baobabs have an anthropomorphic quality; I imagine that if someone painted a face on their trunks, they’d speak and laugh and hug with their gangly limbs, maybe even giggle.  


A tree in the Lost Island, a large stand of baobabs in the center of Makgadikgadi Pan, a salt flat in Botswana. The hole in the center of this tree is a porcupine nest.
Super Sande, a local Botswanan guide, holds baobab fruit he picked for his children.
Baobab fruit, the seeds of which are the best source of vitamin C to be found in Botswana’s salt pans.

PART 2

Classified as stem succulents, baobabs have a complex physiology. Botanists are just starting to understand how the trees function. The tree’s root systems can grow to a distance greater than the heights of the trees; they are shallow networks, so as to take advantage of low annual rainfall. Their wood is moist and, consequently, soft, which means that the trees can’t be cut down to be used for fuel or buildings. Thanks to living plant cells called parenchyma, which are relatively abundant in their wood, baobabs are some of the most effective trees at controlling their water loss. Parenchyma cells, which have more flexible cell walls than lignified cells, the type found in rigid hard wood, are soft, and when they fill with water, baobabs bulge outward, which accounts for the appearance of the trees’ belly-like shape. When they are less full, they become smaller and more flaccid, allowing the trunk to shrink a tiny bit.

Some baobabs bear leaves for roughly three months a year. During the leafless period, during the dry season, the process of photosynthesis takes place in the trees’ branches and trunk, using the water stored there. Older trees can grow so fat that they hollow out, then store water in the hollow. After prolonged years of drought, the water inside the tree evaporates and the integrity of the baobab simply falls apart from the inside out. (The Ombalantu Baobab in Namibia, said to be 800 years old, has a hollow trunk that can fit up to 35 people.) This is one way baobabs can die. But they’re also weirdly regenerative; if you cut into the bark or bore a hole through the trunk, the tree will grow back bark and fill in the hole. One tree in northern Botswana, near Kasane, had a human-sized opening leading to a hollow a couple years ago. When I saw it, the trunk was fully grown back and sealed.

There are eight species of baobabs. They are native to Madagascar, mainland Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and Australia. All are descendants of a larger, subtropical and tropical tree group—the bombacoideae, a classification that includes balsa, kapok, and durian. Tens of millions of years ago, just after the Eocene epoch, distant relatives of the baobab likely migrated from South America up and over the North Atlantic route through a boreal tropical environment. Seeds of the baobab were distributed 50 meters or so at a time, producing saplings, generation after generation. The climate was much warmer then, and CO2 levels were much higher; there were jungles and rainforests thriving from the earth’s North to South Poles. Scientists drilling in the Arctic and Antarctic recently found evidence of those baobabs and palm trees during the early Eocene epoch, about 10 million years after the dinosaurs died off. The baobabs matched the animals of the time. Deemed “megafauna” by scientists, they lived alongside the Brontotherium, the “thunder beast,” a mammoth two-horned ungulate that looked like a mythic rhino; 100- and 200-pound penguins; prehistoric ducks the size of toddlers; and Andrewsarchus, the largest terrestrial meat-eating mammal ever, basically a wolf the size of a bear. It was around this same time that whales gave up on land and submerged themselves in water.  

Baobabs of the Lost Island, the oldest of which are thought to be between 2,000 and 3,000 years old.

Baobabs don’t generate rings to mark their annual growth cycle, which means that their ages are determined by carbon dating. The oldest identified baobab today is 2,500 years old; it was a sapling just as Buddha’s life was ending, and has shared the planet with Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ; it was firmly rooted when Aristotle developed the scientific method in the fourth century BCE. Early humans used the tree for shelter, shade, and sustenance. Tens of thousands of years ago, hunter-gatherers began using baobab fruit to supplement their diets. They made rope from baobab bark, wove baskets from the rope, and used the shell of the fruit for bowls—techniques which are still in use today. The fruit itself sustained entire communities through drought.

In 1761, in the first Western classification, French botanist Michel Adanson described the African tree he encountered in Senegal in a presentation to the French Academy of Sciences, calling it baobab. (The genus was later named Adansonia in his honor.) Baobabs have been dubbed wooden elephants, the monkey-bread tree, the upside-down tree, the tree of life. Depending on the size of the trees, they provide spots where town meetings are held, where marriages are recognized, where ancestors are buried, where spirits haunt the living. It’s unclear whether or not humans settled near baobabs or planted the trees as they moved about, looking for land to settle. Either way, the baobab is present in 32 countries throughout Africa.

There are also specimens in the Caribbean—the only place in the Americas where baobabs currently thrive—brought there by enslaved peoples in the 17th and 18th centuries. (In Saakpuli, Ghana, enslaved families were chained to baobabs overlooking the market as their bodies were put on sale for transatlantic slave merchants. Adanson wrote that they carried baobab seeds as emergency rations to endure the forced ocean crossing.) Their descendants on St. Croix say their ancestors arrived with “jumbie necklaces” from the spirit trees of Senegal and Guinea; the 84-square-mile island, now part of the US Virgin Islands, has more than 100 baobabs, the largest of which was used as a meeting point for a slave rebellion against the Dutch in 1878. It also served as the gallows for the leaders of that revolt. Eventually the tree succumbed to the winds of Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Trees—sometimes felled, sometimes planted, sometimes accidental witness to history—provide a setting always growing imperceptibly in the background. We plant trees for resources, shade, sustenance. We often kill trees with intention and purpose: for shelter, for warmth, for paper, for soap, for winter rituals, for clogs, for furniture. But with baobabs, we’re watching in exasperation as they fold on their own. The description of fallen giant trees struck a chord globally, even though the baobab grows mostly in Africa, Australia, and India. (There are a few in Hollywood, Florida, and in Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, where the synthetic spectacle—the Tree of Life—lights up in neon and glitz.) Speaking anthropomorphically, the baobab is the charismatic megafauna of botany, so its fall seems to portend our own. 


Green’s Baobab is inscribed with the words “Green Expedition 1858,” marking the visit of slave traders to this site.

PART 3

In 2005, the scientists involved in the Nature Plants study—Stephan Woodborne, associate professor at the University of Pretoria and a researcher at iThemba LABS in Johannesburg, along with six others—set out to study baobabs. This collaboration has yielded a number of different papers, but it was only the last one, in 2018, that captured the global imagination. Woodborne wanted to relate climate models to the samples collected in the field, and Adrian Patrut, the paper’s lead scientist and a professor of chemistry at Romania's Babeș-Bolyai University, was aiming to carbon-date the trees. They bored holes in old specimens, hoping to find information about the weather over the past millennia. They had heard rumors that some baobabs might be as old as 6,000 years, maybe even older. After cataloguing so many collapsed baobabs, they made another conclusion: that the trees were in peril. They published the ages of trees in the peer-reviewed Nature Plants, along with the alarming fact that nine of the 13 oldest and five of the six largest baobabs that they sampled had died or partly collapsed in the past 12 years. The reports of the old trees’ deaths led to shocking headlines. The New York Times published a story titled “Last March of the ‘Wooden Elephants’: Africa’s Ancient Baobabs Are Dying”; the Guardian titled its piece “Climate change is wiping out the baobab, Africa’s ‘tree of life’”; National Geographic wrote, “Africa’s Oldest Trees Are Dying, and Scientists Are Stumped.” Patrut told NPR, “Such a disastrous decline is very unexpected. 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.”

When visiting iThemba LABS this past October, Woodborne told me that the baobabs he’d studied had appeared healthy and strong, and then they “just fell.” He said, “There is an indescribable stillness—the baobab is just no longer a baobab. And within a year, it disintegrates. There’s just a depression in the earth where the tree was.” In the six or so months since his research was published, Woodborne has lectured extensively around the world about the results. “You give the presentation and people want a happy ending,” he said. “They want to hear that everything will be OK, but it’s not.”

iThemba LABS is an unexpected setting in which to come to any conclusions about a tree, especially a tree that has inspired entire mythologies about the origin of life. It’s gray and institutional. The walls are dotted with stock photography of physicists smiling broadly while engaged in experiments. The halls are long, windowless, and dank. The offices hold lab equipment like EcoTherm ovens and centrifuges; they are littered with beakers and flasks and tubes and scales. Glassware is stacked next to cross-sections of trees. Tree samples obtained from increment borers sit on metal shelves looking like splintered poles. In other rooms, machines hum; they grind field samples of plants into granular matter that is then labeled and stored in small plastic baggies and categorized in drawers according to location and species. Near the labs, two winding warehouse rooms house a 100-meter-long nuclear accelerator. Its industrial and mammoth presence is punctuated by primary-colored levers and monitors and tubes that transform the tree samples from earthly particles into data. It’s the machine Woodborne uses to carbon-date the age of Africa’s oldest trees—the baobabs.

Baines’s Baobabs, in northeast Botswana’s Nxai Pan National Park, are named after 19th-century English colonial painter Thomas Baines.

The mainstream news stories about baobab demise immediately connected the death of the trees to our current climate crisis. The articles tended to leave out any nuance about what we know, and what we don’t, about the current state of baobabs. The tree was clearly in danger before the results were published; several species of baobabs are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species because of human encroachment. The headlines also left out an important detail of the recent revelations: the published research centered on the tree’s growth within the margins of its territory in the southern parts of the African continent, in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, where temperatures are already warming faster than the global average and drought is intensifying with each year. But the baobab is actually thriving in many parts of northern Africa. Are the baobabs from the study dying because of rising temperatures or because they are old, or both? Does their decline indicate the decline of the species? And what does this mean for the surrounding landscape?

All of these are questions without easy answers, and depending on whom you talk to, they might not even be the questions asked by the most prominent scientists studying the trees. Diana Mayne, a lecturer at University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, falls under the category of baobab obsessive; her research is driven by a passion to understand the workings of the baobab. Her office is stacked with every study ever published on the tree, every book, every map. She’s traveled to Zimbabwe, Botswana, northern Africa, Madagascar, and Australia, spending decades of her life measuring the circumference of baobabs’ trunks year to year, taking soil samples, studying any reference made to the tree. She does the work because she believes that the scientific community is mistaken in its understanding of the baobab. In fact, she calls most papers published on the tree “fake news.” She thinks Adrian Patrut and Stephan Woodborne just haven’t studied enough trees to reach their conclusions; she also thinks that the link between climate change and radiocarbon dating is theoretical and not proven.

David Baum, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, tells me that though he disagrees with some of the climate conclusions regarding the study—the portion of the study that received the most notice, he explains, wasn’t conclusive—he’s glad it’s drawing attention to baobabs. They may be in danger for other reasons. Baum has found that the decline of the fruit bat, which spreads baobab pollen in the Eastern African regions and Madagascar, has led to fewer young baobabs, and cattle grazing is another threat to saplings. “The thing that is good and true about the carbon dating is that these trees are very old, and we now have confirmation of that,” Baum says, adding that it is possible for baobabs to go on living after collapse. (Mayne tells me she’s seen a baobab in Australia that was felled in WWII by locals, who carved a canoe out of one of its fallen trunks. But the tree, which was still rooted, kept sprouting small limbs, which in turn sprouted green leaves. The tree is still alive today.) “On the mortality side, there just isn’t enough data. It’s qualitative, not quantitative. If you want to know how the species are doing, you look at the young ones, not the old ones,” he says. “I don’t know many places in the world where you find young baobab. There are virtually none in Madagascar now, and no species can survive without recruitment.”  


A baobab forms the centerpiece for this couple’s farmstead in a remote Botswanan village.

PART 4

When the baobab study came out and the headlines went viral, it was hard not to feel gut-punched. The thought of giant “friendly” trees dying was apocalyptic, part of the now constant churn of the world’s extreme weather cycle: fires, drought, floods, hurricanes. While we are just beginning to understand the inner workings of trees—how they lean on each other, share resources, and communicate—they’re increasingly under attack. Rice-sized bark beetles have decimated billions of trees in the US; fires have ravaged forests in California, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington; early snows fell trees in the Midwest and on the East Coast of America; and deforestation in the Amazon has caused an unprecedented shift from a tropical to savannah climate, pushing the Amazon’s ecological balance to a tipping point. The surface of our planet is being dramatically altered by the absence of trees. The green of the globe is disappearing.

Before I boarded the bush plane to fly to the Okavango Delta, I visited Gweta, a village in northeast Botswana, and spotted a baobab just casually chilling on the side of a main road. I got out of the truck. It felt like the surreal set of an alternate universe, a science fiction landscape where dinosaurs and spaceships and the Wild West and melting skies might collide. The tree was 20 feet wide. It wasn’t famous or named, like many of the ancient baobabs. Just one of the gatekeepers of Gweta, a small dusty town just east of the Nxai and Makgadikgadi pans, cracked earth that indicates a shallow water table. It’s where many travelers stop to see animals, and some to see a few of the famous baobabs. You can drive for hours on barely traversed dirt roads and not see a baobab, and then suddenly find yourself surrounded by 30 giants in a secret forest.

In the dry season, which runs from April to October, everything looks brown and parched. Toward the end of the season, the trees look thirsty. The region has suffered from years of extreme drought. Just a couple years ago, the reservoir in Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone, ran dry and access to tap water was restricted to every other day. Some agricultural areas are still smoky from shrubs set on fire to clear the land for planting, but fire rarely burns the moisture-laden baobabs. Baobabs survive most things, so news of the trees’ demise runs counter to local legend in which baobabs are gods. When you’re surrounded by these giants, it’s hard not to imagine them as ethereal beings.

Many indigenous communities bury their dead near the baobab with the idea that, through its trunk, the tree keeps ancestors alive. In Gweta, my guide and fixer, Lesh Chaixara, introduced me to Communica “Chipson” Sekalebe, 69, a medicine man who divines the future and is one of two traditional doctors in the village. A shoulder-high barrier made of browned leaves separated Chipson’s mud-walled house from the others. We sat in his yard, a dirt area where his grandchildren chased small pet dogs. Chipson, who was born in Gweta and whose family has lived there as many generations as he can remember, learned medicine from his father, who learned from his father. They use baobab leaves and bark to help with queasiness and fever, to maintain strength. I asked Chipson if he could imagine a world without baobabs. He said in his native language, Kalanga, “No, I don’t want to see that. I won’t be happy if the baobab trees go, if everything dies.” He told me his great-grandfather is buried near Gutsha Baobab, a tree later named Green’s Baobab after the 19th-century Portuguese slave traders who used the tree as a marker for fresh water. “When I see the baobab, I’m only thinking about my ancestors. My ancestors are here,” he told me.

Chapman’s Baobab.

When I asked Chipson if he would be willing to visit his great-grandfather’s grave with me, he agreed and invited his eldest grandson, Abe. We drove for two hours toward the Gutsha Pan through dirt passages that barely resembled roads. When we got out, Chipson, who walks with a limp, using a crutch on his left arm to move forward, circled the baobab, looking for its fruit. Not finding fruit, he and Abe examined the trunk, touching various names and dates from the 19th and 20th centuries carved in the bark, initials from explorers and slave traders and travelers who passed by, but never the names of those buried below. They stepped carefully over the mess of shallow, exposed roots. Chipson told me that his family and others from the village come here to ask the gods for permission to hunt. This is a tradition amongst the Basarwa hunters of Botswana, who believe that any hunt will be unsuccessful without the baobab’s permission. The tree is also where you ask for other things—for protection, for food, for marriage, for health. I asked Chipson if he would ask the tree to give me permission to write about baobabs, and he said he would, at the grave of his ancestor, Xhotsie, a few hundred feet away. “This man was a prophet and seemed like a god to us,” he said. “People would come to him looking for help. He came from Zimbabwe and died in the 1920s, and people would lay down on his grave for protection.”

We walked away from the Gutsha Baobab toward the cluster of palms where Chipson’s ancestor was buried. It was an oasis at the edge of the pan, and Chipson searched the bush for the correct pathway to his family’s gray termite hill. Once he found it, he got down on his knees and tapped and dug and carved a couple small pieces from the mound. They were to be distributed back in the village for luck. Then he lifted the growth around the mound and gestured me under a thorny canopy. After a few successive trills and small shouts, and a donation of a few coins at the base of the termite mound, he said it was OK, I could write about the trees. We walked down to the pan. There were track marks and a mud hole the size of a small pond; elephants had been working the area for access to the water. Near the water we found paw prints from a lion, and Lesh, my guide, pointed to the sky: dozens of vultures circled, waiting their turn to pick flesh from fresh kill. Chipson took water in his hands and walked back to splash some of it over the grave.

We returned to the truck to make our way to Chapman’s Baobab, a bigger, more famous tree some seven miles away. Though named after 19th-century South African explorer and elephant hunter James Chapman—who wrote that he was “lost in amazement, truly, at the stupendous grandeur of this mighty monarch of the forest”—the tree is more closely associated with the British explorer David Livingstone, who camped there in the mid-1800s and carved his initials into the bark of the tree, which once had a 30-foot circumference and looked like an island forest at the edge of vast salt plains. At one point, Chapman’s Baobab had seven bulbous bases fused together, almost like seven fully grown trees, to create a trunk that looked multipronged but lived as one. But in January 2016, Chapman’s Baobab fell. Two days before, Lesh explained, he had been there visiting the tree. It looked fine. Then Lesh heard through another guide that Chapman’s had collapsed overnight, split like a banana peel, each trunk falling in a different direction. Botswana had experienced a record high temperature of 111.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Chapman’s, once a protected monument, was now exposed, its massive root structure naked and belly-up. It looked like a cross-section of a snake pit, frozen in time and crusted in a mineral layer of calcrete, a natural cement. It was dry, the bark brittle. But the tree was not dead; several shoots with green leaves sprang from reddish bark on one of the fallen trunks.


Baobabs on Kubu Island, Botswana. This site was used through the 1900s as a place for local initiation ceremonies.
A dead and desiccated baobab on Kubu Island, with a living tree in the background.
A drawing depicting two baobabs, carved into the plaster wall of a building on Kubu Island.

 

PART 5

A few days after visiting Gweta and Kasane, I arrived at Bushman Plains, the camp in the Okavango Delta. With the help of several guides and translators—Diesel, MP, and Simon—I traveled to Gunitsuga, Etsha, Beetsha, and Gudikwa, small villages north of the 1,900-square-mile Moremi Game Reserve where baobabs serve as village centers and meeting posts.

The day after my arrival at camp, we set out for the villages. To get from the camp to the villages required another two-hour drive through landscape without roads. We crossed the Ngwezumba River twice, the second time driving in water so deep, Diesel took off his shoes and rolled up his pants inside the truck to avoid getting wet. Simon had brought along the fruit of a baobab. He cracked it open to show me the chalky square pieces. The fruit is so coveted that kids use sticks to throw at the high branches to knock down the mango-sized fuzzy pods. Once cracked open, the pods hold dry, tart white squares that you can break apart and suck through to the seed. They taste like SweeTarts or Pixy Stix. The flesh can be boiled or mixed into a shake. The leaves of a baobab tree can be steamed and cooked like a leafy green. There are people who believe living near a baobab tree makes women more fertile, especially if they eat the fruits and leaves. (Some companies now are selling baobab powder as a superfood in both Western and African markets—they’re banking on baobab being the next chia seed or açai, which could also spell trouble for the future of the species if the fruit is overharvested.) One representative from Gudikwa I spoke to, Amos Sekandeko, 76, echoed others’ sentiments about the fruit’s value. It can be made into porridge, he explained; it is very healthy, full of vitamin C and protein, but you have to leave some fruit for the ancestors or the tree will swallow your arm.

A herd of cattle roams across the edge of the salt pan near the Lost Island.

Once we got on the main dirt road, we picked up young villagers walking back home from cattle posts. I asked them what they thought of the baobab, what they know of the tree—and they smiled but said very little. “I love the fruit of the baobab—it’s the fruit of the bushmen,” Simon, 68, told me. “The loss is especially bad for the next generation, because we can’t show them our greatest tree, they can’t see it, taste it. They won’t know the baobab.” He pointed out a fallen baobab and a baby baobab. The baby baobab had been half eaten by elephants, and the fallen tree had been flattened entirely, shredded until it was tangled with earth, like remnants from war. Both trees were still alive, but their prospects for surviving seemed dim.

It is believed that when kings and elders held meetings under the baobab tree, the tree's spirits would guide them in decision-making. The baobab is an elder; in Burkina Faso, villagers mourn a baobab when it dies, performing a funeral and playing drums usually reserved for chiefs. Medicine men in Madagascar wrap their massive trunks in decorative ribbon to honor them. One elder in Beetsha told me that when certain people within the community went crazy, hearing voices, they would climb the baobab branches and medicine men would dance and drum until the baobab allowed them to return or until the person was ready to climb down. This is how the tree is regarded, as having free agency to help and hurt at will and to always occupy a central position of power. “It’s thought that there are some stars, like comets,” Simon said, “and that those stars end in baobab trees.”

Montso “Zero” Zngorogwe, 47, sat next to Amos Sekandeko in a government office in Gudikwa, translating Amos’s baobab stories from the click-inflected language Yeyi. It was the early afternoon by the time we got there, and the sun was hot against every surface. A worn Bible sat in the corner of the office just under a portrait of Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi. As we were leaving, Zero recalled a night in 1987. Everyone in town was asleep; you could hear the hum of insects in the darkness, he said. Suddenly, a thundering boom echoed through the villages, startling everyone awake. Zero assumed it was the sound of bombs from Namibia—the village was just a few miles from the border war between South Africa and Namibia that had been going for years. When he woke up the next morning, he walked north and saw what actually caused the commotion: their baobab had fallen.

Super Sande applies a paste made from wood-fire ashes and water to part of a tree that he scraped and notched clean of an inscription. The tree will heal underneath, leaving a scar.

“What does it mean now? What do we do with this information going forward? Does humanity really care about these trees, or are they assuming they’ll always be there?” Stephan Woodborne asked me back in his lab. “The indignity of collapse. It’s like this shell of a giant’s former self unable to hold the weight of time, to endure the heat, to live through this when it’s lived through so much.” The study from last year may just be a scientific rendering of what people who live near the trees already know, that the trees are in trouble, that their legacy may be lost. Even the study’s skeptics are concerned. “Anybody who thinks about the speed at which the climate is changing most species will have problems going forward, and baobabs will be no exception,” said David Baum.

Adrian Patrut, lead author of the study, and a research team recently returned from a trip to Madagascar. “The largest baobab of all species, named Tsitakakoike, which was a Grandidier baobab, split and died,” he told me, adding that residents of the area, near Morombe, explained that they had not seen a single drop of rain over the past three and a half years. “This is a dramatic event of unprecedented magnitude, with severe implications for the ecosystem of southwestern Madagascar.” When I asked Woodborne if baobabs will survive, he suggested that the future of the trees may be dependent on the future of humanity. “I suspect that the answer to this question lies in some form of human self-destruction, and the question is whether we will take down a whole lot of our biodiversity with us,” he said. “Already we are doing that. What will survive? Who can say. But if baobabs were to out-survive humanity, it would please me—although, by definition I would no longer exist to be pleased about it.”

Update, 2/4: An earlier version misidentified the ownership of Bushman Plains camp—it is the only Bushman-owned, not black-owned. We regret the error.

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