The land of the giants

The spectacular baobabs of Madagascar are some of the largest and most distinctive trees in the world, which have potent spiritual significance and are a draw for tourists. But, as Helen Scales discovers, the trees face an uncertain future
Even from the air, it’s obvious how truly enormous the baobabs of western Madagascar are. Peering through the clouds, I could easily make out individual trees reaching upwards like stubby fingers from the flat landscape. A few hours later, red sand squishing between my toes, I strolled among a cluster of giant trunks, dwarfed by their impressive bulk.Madagascar is the best place in the world to see baobabs. Of the eight known species, six are found only there, while a seventh has made its way across the Mozambique Channel from mainland Africa with a little bit of human help.

Some of the most visited and photographed baobabs in Madagascar are at the Avenue des Baobabs in the western province of Menabe, close to the town of Morondava. There, a dozen trees straddle a narrow sandy road, soaring 30 metres into the sky. Known locally as renala (‘mother of the forest’ in Malagasy), these trees belong to the tallest baobab species in the world: Adansonia grandidieri, named after two great 19th-century French botanists Michel Adanson and Alfred Grandidier.At sunset, the avenue is often crowded with tourists taking photographs of magnificent baobab silhouettes, the air filled with the singing of the local children, who sell piles of melon-sized baobab fruit and exchange flowers for sweets – all part of the Avenue des Baobabs experience.Madagascar is eager to develop its nature-tourism industry, and the Avenue des Baobabs is a “symbol not only for the Menabe region but for Madagascar as a whole”, according to Paul Raonintsoa from Fanamby, a Malagasy NGO working on baobab conservation. But what does the future hold for the Malagasy baobabs?

Not so natural
The Avenue des Boababs is something of a contradiction; the ‘natural’ scene that tourists flock to is actually manmade. While the trees themselves are natural enough, the surrounding landscape was created by humans. Back in the early 20th century, much of the Morondava plain was cleared for agriculture, but many baobabs were spared for their value as a food source and renewable building material, or simply survived the fires that were set to clear the dry deciduous forest around them. Now many, including those that line the famous avenue, stand alone in paddy fields, a reminder of where the forest once was.And there is a further twist in the avenue’s tale. The very thing that created the dramatic scene may now be destroying it. It seems that the baobabs are falling down. “Every year I see new individuals that have fallen,” says Jim Bond, an ethnobotanist who has studied Madagascar’s baobabs for more a decade.The exact cause of the tumbling baobabs is uncertain, but it’s thought that year-round irrigation for rice paddies is partly to blame. Baobabs are adapted to the annual wet season, but their roots can’t cope with constantly waterlogged soils. Lone trees separated from the surrounding forest are also susceptible to cyclones.

The Malagasy government is becoming increasingly concerned. By 2015, it wants 15 per cent of Menabe’s regional income to come from tourism, and clearly it wants the avenue to still be standing to greet the visitors.However, photographing the instantly gratifying solitary trees in the dramatic open landscape at the Avenue des Baobabs isn’t the only way to experience baobabs in Madagascar.Within a few hours drive of Morondava, three species of baobab can be seen in relatively intact dry forest habitat. “For real baobab encounters, you need to get away from the trashed areas,” says Huw Crompton, a landscape architect turned forest conservationist who has taught local children to paint pictures inspired by the forest. “We would go looking for the most beautiful trees to paint in less damaged landscapes,” he says.For those after a truly wild baobab encounter, Madagascar offers plenty of opportunities. Bond is leading a baobab expedition next year to the Mikea forest in the island’s southwest. A team of Malagasy and foreign participants will descend the Mangoky River in dugout canoes, then trek across the spiny forest by moonlight. Their whimsical aim will be to find, photograph and paint Madagascar’s largest baobab. More importantly, the expedition will work closely with local people to search for and map baobabs in what is almost certainly one of the least studied and least damaged areas of baobab forest left in Madagascar.

Under threat
Across their range, Malagasy baobabs face a host of threats. Three of the six species are listed as endangered by the World Conservation Union, including the avenue’s renala baobabs.David Baum from the University of Wisconsin has spent years researching Malagasy baobabs. “The main threats to their survival are land clearance for agriculture and grazing, which probably suppresses regeneration,” he says. Conversion of natural habitat has been top of the list of conservation concerns in Madagascar for many years. Burning is the usual method of clearing land, and while baobabs have some resistance to fire, they will eventually succumb to repeated burning.Degradation of the remaining forest is also a problem. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince considered baobabs to be vigorous weeds. He was so fearful of their rampant growth that every morning he meticulously cleared all of the baobab seedlings away so they wouldn’t smother his tiny planet. Sadly, Madagascar’s baobabs aren’t so resilient.Botanist Daniel Metcalfe recently conducted a study of the baobabs in Kirindy, a forestry reserve in western Madagascar a few hours drive north of Morondava. He found plenty of fony baobabs, but regeneration was taking place only at a very low level. He believes that human disturbance in the forest, such as logging, may be promoting the shrubby undergrowth, which quickly fills in the bright forest gaps needed for baobab germination.Another problem the trees face is the dispersal of their seeds. Baum suggests that dispersal is being limited by the absence of two large, now extinct animals – a gorilla-sized lemur and the three-metre-tall elephant bird. Passage through the digestive tract of these giant fruit eaters probably once played a vital role in the distribution of the renala baobabs in particular; however, nowadays, human-assisted dispersal may be just as significant.The baobabs’ plight has important ramifications for the ecosystems in which they are found. Baum describes the trees as “keystone mutualists”– numerous other species, including sunbirds, lemurs, ants and fruitbats are reliant to varying degrees on baobab nectar, pollen and fruit.

Powerful symbol
The majority of Malagasy people will probably never see a baobab – they only grow along the western margin of the island and not in the more populous central highlands. However, as the national tree and the national emblem, the trees are an ideal symbol for increasing awareness not only of the endangered forests but also of the cultural beliefs of the people who live alongside them. “The image of baobabs in their natural habitat can provide a powerful message for promoting conservation and education about forest ecosystems,” says Bond.But it’s going to require some swift and coordinated action to ensure that the baobab becomes a symbol of conservation success, rather than joining the dodo as a symbol of humanity’s folly.

Baobab spirituality
Baobabs have spiritual significance for many Malagasy tribes and religions. Ancestral spirits are believed to live in particular, revered trees, and offerings of honey and rum are left near to the trees in the shells of giant land snails, asking the sacred baobabs to aid in the recovery of a sick relative or the speedy return of rains. While conducting ethnobotanical research in the Mikea Forest in western Madagascar during the late 1990s, Jim Bond began collecting stories of the baobabs and forests from rural communities. He has discovered a wealth of baobab stories, many of which have strong parallels to European fairy-tales. In one story, two children are banished to the forest, where they take refuge in a magic baobab tree to escape the hungry forest beasts.Bond plans to compile an illustrated children’s book in the local Masikoro dialect to take back to the region. He hopes national and international versions of the book will help to spread the word about how important baobabs are in Malagasy culture.The spirituality of baobabs has even spread far beyond Africa. Many rural villagers from Japan make pilgrimages to Madagascar, believing that baobabs are the sacred sakaki tree of their shinto belief.

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