While spring has sprung right before our eyes, summertime is fast approaching. And what does this mean? All our favourite seasonal fruit and vegetables are on their way to our kitchen. But, the mainstream produce is not all that Mother Earth has to offer.
Earth is packed with various tree species which are not only unknown to us but also pack a nutritional punch, potent enough to help us change our lives for the better. The sad news is that some of them will be long gone before we even get a chance to find out about them. We cringe even at the thought of this prospect, but baobab may be one of them.
But, how did it come to this? If baobab is the "nutritional wonder" most people claim it is, why did it make it to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species? The reasons behind this unfortunate event are not hard to pinpoint.
Even though Adansonia digitata is the "face" of the baobab tree family, there are eight other baobab species which often fly under our radar. While all of them have something to put on the table regarding nutrition and health, it seems that three of these species got the short end of the stick.
Adansonia grandidieri, suarzezensis and perrieri are the three endangered baobab tree species waving their red flag for our attention these days.
Endemic to Madagascar, this species occurs in three districts of Menabe region. However, one study proves that there are five other subpopulations found throughout the island. The same study continues that (by 2013) there have been more than one million trees documented in Madagascar.
In 2016, experts assessed the current extinction status of the Adansonia grandidieri baobab species, and we hate to say that the news was not encouraging. According to the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species, there has been a 50% reduction in the Adansonia grandidieri population over the last years, causing this species to become officially endangered.
This conclusion is the result of a projected (future) and inferred (past) observation of the habitat loss over a three-generation period, from 1953 to 2116.
Here is one of nature's paradoxes. Even though this baobab species is found in abundance all over Madagascar where it's endemic, individual Suarez baobab trees are regenerating healthily only in a region known as Mahory. So, this environmental condition can only make things worse for this species in the future, turning into a bonafide endangered species, according to the ICUN Red List.
Confined to the northern tip of Madagascar, Adansonia perrieri is like a ghost-tree for scientists to this day. That is why this species is not extensively examined. However, according to the ICUN Red list, Perrier's baobab is an endangered species as it can only be found in small populations here and there. In fact, only one population counts more than a dozen individuals.
Despite their massive size, these three baobab species face extinction. But, what are the reasons hiding behind this unfortunate event?
The ever-growing and possibly unsustainable wood, charcoal and timber exploitation of trees in Madagascar are major threats to the survival of three baobab species, Adansonia perrieri, suarezensis and grandidieri. As more and more baobab trees face the power of a wood-cutting machete or saw, the chance of future recruitment is slowly but steadily decreasing.
Even if most baobab trees live for centuries at a time, it doesn't mean that they don't get old. And when a population does get old (like with most of them), things can get a bit ominous. Old trees have a very low rate of natural regeneration which results in fewer trees down the line.
We know it, you know it, and people in Africa know it. The Baobab fruit is a nutritional goldmine. Not only are they packed with vitamins and nutrients, but various parts of the baobab tree are also used to treat several ailments from which local people suffer such as malaria, high fever, infections and much more.
So, as they keep exploiting the baobab tree for their own benefit, chances are fewer and fewer trees will be grown in the future. Combine that with the low regeneration rate of baobab trees and wood harvest, and you have a full-on extermination in your hands.
There is a silver lining however because an organisation called PhytoTrade Africa was established in 2001 whose goal was to alleviate poverty and protect biodiversity in the South Africa region by developing an industry that is not only economically successful but also ethical and sustainable.
Before baobab becomes the massive, impressive trees we know, it starts off as something simple such as a young plant. However, goats and cattle graze and trample these young plants, making matters worse for baobab's survival.
Apparently, rats are a problem everywhere, even in Africa. As soon as baobab seeds touch the ground, rats predate on them to satiate their hunger. Fewer seeds mean a reduced chance of growing young plants.
The conversion of forests into agricultural lands has always posed a significant threat to several tree species, not just baobab. From fires to water pollution due to cultivation, everything may harm the sensitive baobab plants in the very early stages of growth.
However, starting fires is a common agricultural technique used in Africa. So, practices like the “slash and burn” technique known to locals as Tavy may pose a significant threat to still developing baobab trees.
At the same time, the pollution caused by the local sugar industry is known to disturb the physiology of the baobab tree, especially in the Menabe region of Madagascar.
Nature has it all figured out. In an attempt to preserve certain baobab species, individual animals serve as carriers who store the tree's seeds in their body while migrating them to new, more hospitable environments in which they can germinate. How?
Animals such as the giant tortoise which is now extinct used to consume baobab seeds. The seeds remained in their digestive system for up to 23 days. This way the tortoises had all the time in the world to move to a new area in which the seeds would be removed from their digestive system. This is how many baobab species subpopulations came to life.
Unfortunately, now that animals such as the giant tortoise are extinct, the three aforementioned baobab species face extinction as well. However, scientists are thinking of introducing giant tortoises to Madagascar in one last attempt to preserve the baobab tree.
Even though things don't look promising for the future of three baobab species (Adansonia grandidieri, perrieri and suarezensis), there are still people who do their best to save this African wonder-tree. Protected Area Network (PAN) is the perfect example of this effort. PAN is an ongoing project which struggles to preserve Madagascar's remarkable biodiversity through a variety of endeavours. Let's hope for the best!