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The Tree of Life

"I pointed out to the little prince that baobabs were not little bushes but, on the contrary, trees as big as castles; and that even if he took a whole herd of elephants away with him, the herd would not eat up one single baobab."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 1943, "The Little Prince"

Mythical tree par excellence, the baobab (from Arabic for "father of many seeds" or Adansonia by its scientific name) is an exceptional tree of rare beauty, steeped in myth in the regions where it grows and a dominant feature of their landscapes. Originally from Madagascar, the tree has spread as far as Australia and thrives on adversity with a uniquely durable and tough seed that can travel thousands of miles via ocean currents and in the stomachs of birds that pick at its fruit. Some of the finest and largest varieties still grow on the island of Madagascar but the largest tree stands in South Africa, measuring 47 metres in circumference and thought to be around 6,000 years old.

In Madagascar, the baobab plays a vital role in people's lives and offers one of the favourite and most photographed tourist destinations on the island on the 'Avenue of the Baobabs' where a group of Grandidier baobabs line a road in the western Menabe region. The tree's uses are manifold - its leaves and fruit serve as a popular food and its seed and pulp are used to press vegetable oil and brew beer respectively. The fibrous bark is used to make shoes, nets, ropes and baskets and the pollen is reduced down to make a type of glue. Some trees are hollowed out and used as living quarter or shelters for both humans and livestock.

Most importantly for hot and dry countries, however, is the tree's ability to retain and store water during the dry season. A large tree can accumulate and store up to 120,000 litres of water during the wet season which gets filtered through the bark and serves as a living well for communities in arid parts of Madagascar and other parts of Africa. Due to its life and water giving properties and its unusual shape the baobab has given rise to numerous legends. In Madagascar, people think of the baobab's odd looking branches as its roots, reaching out toward the heavens and making contact with the ancestors.

Since the early 2000s, baobabs in southern Africa have started to die off in large numbers and a recent report in the journal Nature Plants has found that nine of the oldest 13 trees across Africa have died in the past 12 years, some of them as old as 3,000 years. The report suggests that the cause of the widespread dying off "may be associated at least in part with significant modifications of climate conditions that affect southern Africa in particular." Being so intrinsically linked to the water cycle, the baobab's very survival is now potentially threatened by rising temperatures and drier conditions.

Pascal Maitre became fascinated by the baobab in the course of four trips to Madagascar where he observed the unique and indispensable role the tree plays in people's lives.
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