Do you remember the tree Rafiki used to chronicle the lives of Simba, Kiara, Kovu and others in The Lion King? It’s not just any tree. Dubbed the “tree of life,” it is the ancient African baobab. Baobabs have been around for millennia—longer than humans have—and even longer than the continents split hundreds of millions of years ago. These baobabs can grow to massive sizes—30 metres in height, and 50 metres in circumference—and live for up to 5,000 years.
Interestingly, the baobab is a succulent, not unlike the little mini-bushes (cactus) kept on your office desks. These trees are endemic to the African savannah, and can be found in over 30 countries in the continent. The tree has adapted to the dry and arid climate and uses its bulbous trunk to store the water it absorbs during the rainy season. Come summer, the baobab uses this water reserve to produce fruit, which are packed with nutrients and anti-oxidants.
Baobabs have been used by humans and animals for centuries, probably more. The tree provides shelter, food and water in the testing climate, which gives it its nickname, the Tree of Life. The bark can be used to make clothes and ropes, and the seed (jam-packed full of nutrients, like six times more vitamin C than oranges) are used to make cosmetics and medicinal supplements. They even have a natural shelf life of three years. The leaves of the baobab are rich in iron and are a great substitute for spinach, just like the seeds can be substituted for coffee. They can also be made into jam or fermented to make beer, and seedlings have taproots that can substiture carrots. The trunks, once hollowed out, can be used as shelter. There have been reports of baobab trunks being used as jails, bush pubs and post offices. All in all, the baobab tree has over 300 uses.
But not all is well for this giving tree. The oldest trees in the world are slowly dying, and have scientists alarmed. Nine of the 13 oldest and largest baobabs in Africa have died in the past decade, aged 1,100 to 2,500 years old. While further research is needed to understand why, scientists speculate the reason is climate change. The rapidly warming temperatures have either killed the trees directly, or have exposed them to the elements like fire, wind, drought and diseases. Researchers have used radiocarbon dating to determine that the oldest tree—now dead—was over 2,500 years old.
Of the nine, four trees have completely died, while parts of the others (like stems and roots) are dead. All of them were in southern Africa—Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia.