Baobabs have endured for centuries as essential cultural symbols. But increasingly, they are threatened by climate change, urbanization and a growing population.
DAKAR, Senegal — Wide, awkward baobab trees blend into the cityscape of Dakar, the busy capital of Senegal, almost without notice.
Drivers wash a fleet of taxis parked beneath one giant tree near a freeway on ramp. Rusting cars with open hoods are parked in a mechanic’s shop under the shade of another. A leathery trunk is a community billboard, with ads nailed to it for a plumber and an apartment for rent.
Aliou Ndour stood on a crowded corner, pulled out his phone and scrolled past the pictures of friends and family to another precious photo: the baobab in his home village.
Fat baobabs, some more than half a millennium old, have endured across Senegal, passed over for lumber largely because their wood is too brittle and spongy for use in furniture. Baobab leaves are mixed with couscous and eaten, the trees’ bark stripped to make rope, their fruit and seeds used for drinks and oils.
Something else has helped preserve these giants: They are beloved.
“This,” said Adama Dieme, craning his neck to look up at the spread of branches of the baobab on his block, “is the pride of the neighborhood.”
But baobabs, like many of the region’s trees, are in jeopardy, threatened by the same forces upending numerous facets of society — climate change, urbanization and population growth.
West Africa has lost much of the natural resources once tied so closely to its cultural identity. Poaching has stolen most of its wildlife; lions, giraffes and desert elephants are sorely endangered.
Huge swaths of forest are being razed to clear space for palm oil and cocoa plantations. Mangroves are being killed off by pollution. Even wispy acacias are hacked away for use in cooking fires to feed growing families.
A recent study said climate change might be blamed for the deaths of some of Africa’s oldest and biggest baobabs. In Senegal, local researchers estimate the nation has lost half its baobabs in the past 50 years to drought and development.
One of the biggest developments in the country is outside Dakar, where Senegal’s president is building an entirely new city, in the middle of a baobab forest. Officials have pledged to replant any trees they raze.
On the far edges of the development, construction workers were building new homes. The corpse of one baobab lay on the ground, a musty smell lingering at its exposed hollow interior. The smooth marks of an ax scarred its trunk.
Other charred carcasses of baobabs lay nearby. A worker said those had been torched with gasoline.
“Whenever you see a baobab that has fallen down, you’re sad,” said Gorgui Kebbe, the worker. “It’s a symbol of our country. But having a house to live in takes priority.”
In Senegal an image of a baobab is on the presidential seal. Baobabs are painted on the sides of buildings and on billboards. A fancy seaside hotel is named after them. So is a famous wrestler.
One baobab, which locals say is 850 years old with a 100-foot-circumference trunk, is a tourist attraction. You can sleep in a baobab tree house hotel or ride a zip-line course from baobab to baobab.
Senegal has few rivers and no mountains so baobabs sprout from the scrubby landscape as majestic way points. Throughout history, entire communities were constructed around these trees…
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