Climate Change Likely Killing Africa's Oldest Baobabs

The iconic tree can live to be 3,000 years old and
one in Zimbabwe is so large that up to 40 people can shelter inside its trunk

"Something obviously is going on in nearly selectively affecting the largest and oldest", Thomas Lovejoy, an environmental scientist and Amazon rain forest expert at George Mason University, wrote in an email comment on the study.

Because of limited knowledge about these trees, scientists embarked on a mission in 2005 to study their structure, growth, and age.

According to the Kruger National Park in South Africa, the baobabs can live to be 3,000 years old and can grow to be so large that up to 40 people can shelter inside its hollow trunk.

The giant trees have always been revered as a way to survive drought. The team leader is a nuclear chemist who loved giant trees and had developed a way to date ancient trunks without harming them.

"Over time, single-stemmed individuals become multi-stemmed, owing to the baobabs' ability to periodically produce new stems, in much the same way other tree species produce branches".

Southern Africa - including countries like Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, where the trees catalogued by Patrut were found - is already warming faster than the global average.

The trees, aged between 1,100 and 2,500 years and some as wide as a bus is long, may have fallen victim to climate change, the team speculated.

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According to a report in the journal Nature Plants, no one has been able to figure out the reason behind the falling of these very big trees, but scientists suspect climate change to be the culprit.

Some of the oldest and largest baobabs in South Africa‚ Zimbabwe‚ Namibia‚ Botswana‚ and Zambia have abruptly died in the past decade‚ say a team of worldwide researchers.

"It is definitely shocking and dramatic to experience during our lifetime the demise of so many trees with millennial ages", the study's co-author, Adrian Patrut, told The Guardian. In 2010, its branches started to fall off; then its multiple stems began to split and topple over.

Despite their hardy character, baobabs need water just like any other plant, and southern Africa has become hotter and dryer in recent years.

The oldest tree by far, of which all the stems collapsed in 2010/11, was the Panke tree in Zimbabwe, estimated to have existed for 2,500 years. "Climate change certainly seems like a possible (or likely) contributor". The increased temperature and drought are the major threats, says Patrut. "It's a unusual feeling, because these are trees which may live for 2,000 years or more, and we see that they're dying one after another during our lifetime". The common theory, Baum said, is that as the tree slowly grows around these scars, they can become large hollows.

The baobab tree, sometimes called the "Tree of Life", has an unforgettable appearance.

A tree regarded as the icon of the African savannah is dying in mysterious circumstances.

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