Demise of the Giants: The Fall of Africa’s Baobabs

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Holboom before its demise.

Towering above the surrounding landscape, the African baobab (Adansonia digitata) is one of Africa’s most iconic trees. Reaching monumental proportions and millennial ages, baobabs have served as landmarks and resting places along early trade routes and as vantage points to detect raiding parties. They have been revered as sacred, while their hollow trunks have been put to use as a post office, a church and even a bar. And, believe it or not, the cavity of a baobab at Katima Mulilo in north-eastern Namibia was fitted with a porcelain toilet and a flush system. The baobab fruit is prized for its high nutritional value, while the leaves and bark are used to treat ailments.

Grootboom Before

Grootboom After

Baobabs are home to a variety of creatures. Bats pollinate the flowers, the untidy nests of red-billed buffalo weavers are a common sight high up in the trees, while owls and bushbabies use the trunks as vantage points. Mice make their homes in the hollow trunks or in holes around them.  

The question of how old baobabs can get has been the subject of much debate and wildly exaggerated guestimates. That was until a team of international researchers, headed by Professor Adrian Patrut of the Babes-Bolyai University in Romania, began studying the structure, age and growth of large and old baobabs in 2005. Their aim was to find out why these trees reach such staggering proportions and grow so old. Over 60 baobabs in continental Africa were identified, measured and their ages determined by using accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating.

During the course of their investigations the researchers found that nine of the 13 oldest and five of the six largest baobabs in southern Africa had either died or the oldest part of the tree had collapsed or died since 2005. Their shocking findings were published in several scientific journals earlier this year.  

Four of these collapsed and partly collapsed iconic trees were familiar landmarks in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy in Namibia. The famous Grootboom (‘large tree’) in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, in what was formerly known as Bushmanland, was the first to collapse. This appropriately named giant, the largest known African baobab, consisted of six fused trunks, stood 32 m high and had a circumference of 30.6 metres. Its age was calculated at 1,500 years. The tree began falling apart in late June 2004 and its last trunk toppled at the end of December 2004 or in early January 2005.

Just a few kilometres away, the Lêboom (‘lying tree’) has also been slowly succumbing to the forces of nature. It originally consisted of 12 fused trunks, with an impressive circumference of 34.23 metres, but by late 2017, two trunks were lying on the ground, four trunks were broken and six trunks had broken branches. 

The Holboom(‘hollow tree’), another famous landmark, owes its name to the huge cavity in the fused trunks. With a height of 30.2 metres and a circumference of 35.1 metres, it had the largest circumference and height of all known baobabs. Its demise began in 2012 when the eastern trunk collapsed and walls of the cavity broke off. By late November 2018 only the western arm of the tree was still standing.

Another baobab in the Nyae Nyae Conservancy, the Dorslandboom originally consisted of eight fused trunks (the largest trunk consisted of two fused trunks). Two trunks collapsed before 1880 but continued to live, but two of the remaining oldest trunks toppled over and died in 2006. The oldest date for this specimen is 2,100 years. 

In their quest to establish why baobabs grow so large and reach such old ages, the researchers found that unlike trees that grow branches, baobabs grow trunks of varying ages that fuse into a single trunk around a central cavity.

The researchers suggested that the demise of these iconic trees was probably the result of rising temperatures, which has affected southern Africa more than the global average, as well as drought conditions during the past 20 years. An analysis of dead trunks showed that they contained only 40% water instead of the usual 75-80%. 

During a 2014 investigation a team of researchers discovered the highest density of huge baobabs in the world in the Omusati Region in northern Namibia. Ten specimens with a girth of over 20 metres were located, two of which rank among the five largest African baobabs in the world. 

In their quest to establish why baobabs grow so large and reach such old ages, the researchers found that unlike trees that grow branches, baobabs grow trunks of varying ages that fuse into a single trunk around a central cavity.

Dorsland Baobab

1891 Dorsland Baobab

Sir Howard’s Baobab

Ombalantu Baobab

HOW THE GIANTS FELL

Sir Howard’s Baobab at Tsandi has a height of 22.1 metres and a circumference of 31.6 metres. It is a relatively ‘young’ baobab of between 500 and 550 years old. Another giant tree at Outapi (not the Ombalantu Baobab) has a height of 22.1 metres and a circumference of 30.6 metres.    

The Ombalantu Baobab at Outapi and the Okahao Baobab at Okahao are the best-known baobabs in the region and were declared national heritage sites in 2011. The Ombalantu Baobab, which is in a former South African military base, is 20.4 metres high and has a circumference of 24.4 metres. It consists of six fused trunks and one false trunk, and the large cavity served as a shelter during raids and later also as a post office and a chapel. 

Three of the four trunks of the Okahao Baobab collapsed more than a century ago, while the remaining trunk has a height of 15.7 metres. Its restored circumference is 25 metres. Like the Ombalantu Baobab, the Okahao Baobab stood in the grounds of a former South African military base and SWAPO members brought to the base for questioning were brutalised and tortured there.

Okahao Baobab
This article was first published in the Summer 2018/19 edition of Travel News Namibia.
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia
Travel News Namibia is a high-quality glossy Namibia travel and lifestyle magazine tasked with promoting Namibia to the world. With riveting stories, first-hand encounters and magnificent photographs showcasing tourism, travel, nature, adventure and conservation, TNN is the ultimate and most comprehensive guide to exploring Namibia. Travel News Namibia is published in five different editions per year. These include four English- language editions and one German. Travel News Namibia is for sale in Namibia and South Africa.

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