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Saving the baobab, the world’s longest living flowering tree

Cyrille Cornu is an award-winning documentary maker, naturalist and world leading expert on baobabs. For ten years, he explored Madagascar’s remotest lands to tell the story of the “powerful and mysterious” baobabs; the topsy turvy trees that have inspired folklore for millennia.

One of his journeys is documented in the film Baobabs between Land and Sea which reveals the discoveries and encounters of an expedition that involved crossing through 400km of wild and isolated Madagascan coastline. Though they look robust – even fireproof – they are anything but. Despite appearances, they are fragile and vulnerable and now to two threats: deforestation and climate change. Cornu believes if we are to save these remarkable species, and others – including ourselves –  we must fall in love with nature and rediscover the connection humankind once had with its natural world.

Since boyhood, nature, especially trees and the forests, have fascinated me. I’ve always been curious about each animal, plant, forest or river. This curiosity is something we all should have so we can understand our interconnections with the natural world. The more we learn, the more we see that humans are not at the centre of the universe, indeed quite the contrary.

I first encountered baobabs in 1977 during a stay in Senegal with my parents. Even though I was not yet ten, I fell under their spell. But it was another 30 years before I was to meet them again in Madagascar. They are powerful beings; mysterious, exciting. They’re also the perfect ambassadors of plants and life on this planet. They can live for 2500 years, have large flowers with subtle fragrances that open as the sun sets and produce edible fruits rich in vitamin C and calcium. They provide shelter, food and water for the animals and humans that live around them.   

They are living myths that have fascinated humans since the dawn of time. They are without doubt one of Earth’s most evolved and respected lifeforms, adapting for over tens of millions of years to changing climates while helping entire ecosystems to thrive. During the rainy season, the baobabs absorb and store water in their huge trunks, enabling them to survive in long dry seasons.

Eight species of baobabs have been discovered, seven of which live in Madagascar, including six which are endemic. At first glance, baobabs are so huge that they seem hardy. But if you take a closer look, you find that they’re actually quite fragile. Unlike most trees, there is no dead wood, which is probably what saved them from coal mining. All the cells are alive right up to the core.

On their bark you’ll also find chlorophyll, a tissue sensitive to heat which makes baobabs extremely sensitive to fires. In western Madagascar there’s a practice called “hatsake” which involves using fire to clear forests so that crops can be grown on the ashes. Only a few of these majestic giants survive the fires. In the forests of the Menabe region, for instance, tens of thousands will die each year because of deforestation of this kind.

Despite their hardy appearance, baobabs are extremely vulnerable to fires. Photo by Cyrille Cornu

Plants are hit first and hardest

Climate change has already had dramatic effects on the environment and biodiversity. But it’s difficult to accurately assess the extent of this impact. Due to their immobility, plants are the first to be affected and they are hit hard by changes of temperature and rainfall. This is particularly true of baobabs. In the last 12 years, nine of the 13 oldest and five of the six largest baobabs on continental Africa have died, or at least their oldest parts of them have collapsed and died. And it looks like climate change is one of the reasons for this. Scientific research on the impact of climate change on baobabs species I conducted with colleagues showed that among the three baobab species most threatened with extinction, two are predicted to be severely affected by climate change. But we must not forget that deforestation is still the main cause of disappearance of baobabs and therefore it is necessary to fight this as a priority.

Sadly, few conservation actions are effective in Madagascar. Poverty, corruption and the lack of governance in the regions concerned more often than not scupper conservation efforts. Madagascar has received over $700 million in international conservation funding since 1990. These funds have been distributed to over 500 projects and yet, the entire country is experiencing spiralling biodiversity decline and deteriorated natural landscapes. The current pandemic is also not helping the situation, on the contrary. I was in Diego Suarez this summer and saw an increase in forest degradation and wildlife hunting. When people are hungry, the protection of nature becomes secondary and unmanageable.

One of the biggest baobabs in Madagascar died in 2019. It was called Tsitakakoike, measured 27.30 meters in circumference and was between 1300-1500 years old. It’s suspected that climate change was the reason for its death; many huge baobabs have also died in the area in the last ten years. Photo by Cyrille Cornu

Finding a simpler way of life

People who live in constant contact with nature in Madagascar, as indeed elsewhere, are key to finding many of the solutions to tackling climate change. We need to follow their example. They use resources sparingly, in relation to their needs. And when they use too much of a natural resource on which they depend, they observe first-hand the negative consequences of their actions and change them accordingly. These people have low carbon footprints; they hardly use any manufactured items, buy very little and consume few fossil fuel energies.

This starkly contrasts to richer societies that are often disconnected to nature. Most of the time our needs have become artificial, driven by the pursuit of consumerist debauchery. Sometimes I tell myself that the environmental and climate impact of a day in our life matches that of a year in the life of the Indigenous people I have met on the Red Island. Obviously, their needs and realities are not comparable to ours, but the end results surely raise questions about the viability of our so called “modern” and “advanced” societies.

Indigenous peoples are also more likely to adapt instinctively to climate change. For instance, in the south of Madagascar, there’s an extremely arid place where it rains very little on the Mahafaly plateau. Here, women and men have found a way to survive these conditions thanks to the baobabs. They dig the trunks of the giants to set up living cisterns. During periods of drought, this tradition helps to store water while keeping the tree alive.

I actually worry less about how people will adapt to climate change in Madagascar than how people will adapt in richer countries. The inhabitants of the island are used to living simple lives from day to day and are content with what they have, that is to say, very little.

Baobabs can be turned into giant water tanks that can store tens of thousands of litres of water which can be used during dry seasons. Photo by Cyrille Cornu

A ray of hope

But it’ll be harder for our societies that are increasingly detached from the natural world. Most of us live in cities are clinging to technological and digital extensions. In search of what? This development has an environmental cost with dramatic and uncontrollable consequences: the widespread destruction of biodiversity, climate change, the pollution of the oceans, social exclusion. But despite this, a ray of hope still exists! We can reconnect humans to nature. And the best way to do this – to defend nature – is to truly know it and bring others to meet it and fall in love with it. I am trying to contribute to this by helping show nature in all its wondrous beauty. And at the heart of this work, is showing the world the baobab, a plant that is at once sacred, nourishing and protective.

We also need to stop this constant pursuit of growth at any cost! This is our one and only hope for survival. We can no longer continue to destroy the planet as we do now. Obviously, this requires a lot of effort and concessions; a radical change of society, but I see no other solution.

When I think to the future, I think about the children. What world are we going to leave them? We must use our votes wisely and take actions that put nature at their core. We must find a path to social equality and live in a more minimalist way. We must learn to love and respect. Now is the time to tap into our deep-rooted wisdom and go back to the buds of our evolution which saw humankind live in harmony with nature.

The race is now on to protect the tree of life for future generations. Photo by Cyrille Cornu

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