Madagascar’s sacred trees face existential threats in a changing world

Photos reveal the beauty and threats facing the island country's famous landscapes.

By Sarah Gibbens
Published 6 Feb 2023, 10:05 GMT
The world’s rarest baobab species is Adansonia perrieri, seen here growing in the Ankarana Special Reserve, ...
The world’s rarest baobab species is Adansonia perrieri, seen here growing in the Ankarana Special Reserve, a protected forest in northern Madagascar. Scientists estimate only around 200 trees from these species remain in the wild. They are threatened by climate change and may be at risk of going extinct in its habitat in the future.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic

If you visit the southwest corner of Madagascar, you might find a tree so old its name is Grandmother. She has three stems, fused together, so that her trunk resembles a massive rounded pot rather than a solitary sentinel. The oldest stem dates to A.D. 1,600, meaning she took root a few decades before Atilla the Hun launched his rampage.

Grandmother is a baobab tree, one of a species beloved worldwide not only for its longevity but also for its distinctive crown: a tangle of scraggly branches extends from the trees' top like electrocuted hair. Or, less flamboyantly, like misplaced roots. In creation myths, the baobab is known as the tree the gods planted upside down. 

“When you’re close to the trunk, you feel something powerful,” says William Daniels, a photographer who travelled through Madagascar’s forests to capture the stunning images of the baobab’s mystic charisma that appear with this story. “It’s some good energy.”

Wilfred Ramahafaly, a baobab field specialist, inspects a large, fallen baobab. Ramahafaly isn’t sure why the giant tree collapsed, but he thinks it may have resulted from deforestation or climate change. Both environmental threats are endangering the iconic tree species.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic
The Suarez baobab, Adansonia suarezensis, grows on Cap Diego, a peninsula in northern Madagascar. This species is endangered, and a study published in 2021 showed climate change could cause its current habitat to substantially decline by the end of this century. The tree’s trunk shows visible signs of decay, indicating it will soon collapse.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic

But baobabs are in trouble, potential victims of the warming globe. Scientists sounded the alarm more than five years ago, when they investigated why some of the oldest and largest baobabs in southern Africa had died. In subsequent studies, scientists found these long-lived mammoths are vulnerable to climate change and predicted that four of the world’s baobab species could become extinct by 2021. That includes Grandmother, one of the Malagasy species.

Scientists are still sorting out if baobabs can adapt to their changing environment or if baobab forests could be replanted. They are also assessing what the loss of baobab forests would mean for the plants and animals that live in them. Baobabs are considered a keystone species, meaning they hold ecosystems together. When a keystone species is diminished, the change affects the entire system. 

Schoolchildren take a boat to the Cap Diego peninsula where a reforestation project run by the non-profit group Jardin des Baobabs (Baobabs' Garden) is planting new baobab trees. Billions of dollars have been spent on conserving Madagascar’s unique biodiversity, but a recently published study noted these projects have failed to include local residents and leaders at times.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic
Through a boat window, kids watch baobab trees pass by. At the forest preserve, they will plant baobab trees and learn about the importance of protecting the species.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic
A boy holds a baobab seedling at the baobab garden. Under the right conditions, the seedling could grow for hundreds of years. Natural areas like these have the potential to not only protect trees, but also sustainably provide food and water to local communities.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic
As young baobab trees, saplings are vulnerable to the elements. Here, a newly planted tree is protected by a cage made of sticks that shows the name of the tree’s sponsor.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic

An island of rare and threatened species

Baobab trees are native to sub-Saharan Africa and Australia, where a single species can be found, and baobabs have been introduced to India, South America, and zoos and gardens around the world. 

But their presence in Madagascar is crucial.

The island has some of the richest biodiversity in the world. Once part of the African continent, Madagascar became an island more than 80 million years ago, and lies off the coast of Mozambique in the Indian Ocean. Ninety percent of the plants and animals that developed in over eons of isolation are found nowhere else on Earth today. Of the seven baobab species on the island, six grow only on Madagascar. 

“That’s one of the most amazing things about the Malagasy baobabs,” says Nisa Karimi, a botanist and evolutionary biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “One species occurs all across continental Africa, and then you get to Madagascar, and you have six.” 
Madagascar’s wealth of baobabs is due, in part, to its diverse geography. The island, comparable in size to California or Sweden, has wide ranges in elevation, and networks of impassable rivers that create distinctive ecosystems where trees, mammals, reptiles, and flowers must find a niche. 

Like baobab trees, thousands of the island’s plants and animals face environmental threats. Tortoises, chameleons, and periwinkle flowers are among the island's threatened species.

Lemurs, the long-tailed, tree-swinging primates, are also on the brink—and they play an important role as the main pollinators for several baobab species. Of the 109 different lemur species in Madagascar, nearly a third of them are perilously close to disappearing.

Of baobab trees, the Adansonia perrieri species, is at high risk for extinction. Only about 200 trees remain, meaning the species could be lost forever. 

What’s at stake in Madagascar is so vast, that if all of Madagascar’s unique mammals died out, it would take another 23 million years for a comparably unique set to evolve, according to a recent study in Nature Communications.

On a small peninsula near a town called Antsiranana, a Suarez baobab serves a solemn purpose. Babies who die before they reach five months old are brought here or to other trees, instead of the cemetery, and hung from a branch.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic
Near a forest reserve in northern Madagascar, a man named Seraphin—a father of five and a farmer—carries a bag of charcoal. Like many people living in the countryside, Seraphin makes extra money by selling charcoal. To make it, producers must cut down trees and burn them under the right conditions to create the dense clumps of energy.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic
In the village of Andavaquera, Sagrina, Seraphin’s husband, cooks a meal using charcoal, Madagascar’s main source of cooking fuel. Charcoal is not only an environmental hazard; cooking with this fuel produces dangerous indoor air pollution that harms human health.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic
Laborers sift for sapphires at a mine near the village of Ambondromifehy in northern Madagascar. Behind them, the critically endangered Adansonia perrieri grows. Sapphire mines are common in this region of Madagascar and one of the many threats baobabs face from environmentally damaging industries.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic

A new climate for an old habitat  

Complicating the picture for the baobab’s survival is a host of other man-made threats— including entrenched poverty in one of the world’s poorest countries, which can drive deforestation, as farmers search for more arable land. In the last 20 years, the country has lost nearly a quarter of its tree cover, primarily to logging, according to a recent study published in Science outlining threats to Madagascar’s biodiversity.

To provide further protection to the country’s biodiversity, the study’s authors suggested a series of steps, including more conservation, expanding protected areas, reforming agricultural practices, and addressing social issues that contribute to tree loss. A case in point: the drought over the past two years in southern Madagascar also produced a famine. At the same time, eastern Madagascar endured record rainfall that resulted in flash flooding. Both drought and extreme rainfall are predicted to become more common on the island, and the country lacks the resources to respond to worsening weather disasters. 

Still, Maria Vorontsova, a co-author and botanist at London’s Kew Botanic Gardens (which has one baobab) cautions not to lose sight that “the underlying problem is actually climate change.”

Under an overcast sky, a Suarez baobab tree towers above the landscape. This species can grow over 80 feet tall, a feat it accomplishes over centuries. Trees belonging to this species grow on the northern coast of Madagascar, and as their preferred climate inches northward, they’re unable to follow it.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic

Travelling trees could survive  

As the changing climate causes rising temperatures and recalibrates rainfall patterns, trees all over the globe are on the move. In temperate regions, trees have begun migrating toward the poles to find cooler places to grow.

When scientists modelled how rising temperature and changing rainfall patterns could affect Madagascar’s baobab forests, they predicted that their habitat would shrink over the next century. Baobabs in the north would need to migrate even further north to find suitable growing conditions, but they may be out of luck. As they reach the northern coast, they’ve nowhere else to go. Scientists concluded that some of Madagascar’s northernmost baobab species could disappear by 2100.

“We know that climate change will change a lot of the island,” says Ghislain Vieilledent, an ecologist for CIRAD, a French research centre, and co-author of the research, published in Global Change Biology 2021. “We don’t know precisely what will be the outcome, but we know the change will be profound, and the biodiversity will be profoundly affected.”

The worst-case climate scenario used in Vieilledent’s model is far from certain. It correlates to 4.9°C of warming by 2100, far above the U.N.’s goal of keeping warming below 2°C, but it shows the potential of climate change at its most deadly.

Climate change will increasingly become a threat to several Malagasy baobab species. As the trees’ habitat shifts north, three species will be left behind when they reach the northern coast. But scientists say hope for these species is not lost. By working with local communities to conserve nature and collecting seeds—vaults of baobab DNA—scientists can help Madagascar remain a home to its iconic baobab trees.
Photograph by William Daniels, National Geographic

Is the baobab doomed? Not necessarily. 

In addition to working with local communities and creating protected areas for baobabs, scientists are also stockpiling baobab DNA. Scientists are collecting bits of baobab genetic material in hopes of finding certain traits, like drought tolerance, that might be bred into future trees. 

Karimi, the University of Wisconsin botanist, says certain baobabs could adapt to new conditions, such as saltier water or drier landscapes. She and her colleagues are searching for a diverse collection of baobab seeds to preserve the trees that have the best chance of bringing forests back to life in a changing world.

“We make sure we’re collecting seeds for reforestation under dramatic climate changes,” she says.

William Daniels works on long-term documentary projects, with an interest in people’s search for identity and the consequences of climate change. His project on baobabs is ongoing.


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