“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
The baobab (from Arabic for “father of many seeds”) is a tree of rare beauty, extraordinary lifespan and endless utility. In Madagascar, where it originates, its leaves and fruit serve as a popular food. 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 quarters for both humans and livestock. Most important, though, is the baobab’s ability to retain and store water during the dry season.
A large baobab can accumulate and store up to 120,000 litres of water during the short Madagascan rainy season. This gets filtered through the bark and serves as a living well for communities that have come to depend on it because of climate change.
The baobab has spread as far as Australia and thrives on adversity: its tough seeds that can travel thousands of miles on ocean currents and in the stomachs of birds that pick at its fruit. The world’s largest example of the species, the Sunland Baobab in South Africa, measures 47 metres in circumference and is thought to be around 6,000 years old.
In Madagascar, people think of the baobab’s odd-looking branches as its roots, reaching out toward the heavens and making contact with their ancestors. Yet their earthly lives are threatened. Since the early 2000s, baobabs in southern Africa have started to die off in large numbers. A recent report in the Nature Plants found that nine of the oldest 13 trees in Africa, some of them as old as 3,000 years, have died since 2008.
A man walking the ‘Avenue of the Baobabs’ in western Madagascar gives an idea of the scale of the trees
Baobabs grow on limestone formations called ‘tsingy’ in the Bay of Maramba in northwestern Madagascar
Pods that protect baobab fruit can be the size of a coconut
Some rural communities in Madagascar think of baobabs as reaching out to make contact with their ancestors
Light traffic; heavy load
Baobabs can live for thousands of years if not felled by humans
No other tree species grows branches that look so like roots
Salt and wind have stunted a field of baobab in the foreground, dwarfed by fully-grown trees behind
Bark and wood stripped from this tree in western Madagascar will be used for roofing and construction
Baobab bark is dried before use near Kirindy, western Madagascar
Baobabs can thrive in standing water but can also be hollowed out to store rainfall in the dry season
This example of the Adansonia Za sub-species has been turned into a 9,000 litre water cistern
On Madagascar’s arid Mahafaly plateau, 20,000 members of the Mahafaly and Tandroy ethnic groups depend on water stored in baobabs
Most baobabs used for water storage are owned by the families that hollowed them out, but passing shepherds are traditionally allowed to use them too
Water stored in baobabs stays fresh and is filtered by the bark
A baobab growing near the Mangoky river, which drains the central Madagascan highlands
A man performs a ceremony that involves the sacrifice of a cockerel before a cistern is cut into a Za Baobab, one of six species of baobab native to Madagascar
The first step in adapting a baobab for water storage is to cut a window in its trunk
Next, the trunk has to be hollowed out by hand, which can be ten days’ work for a team of three
Worsening droughts across much of Africa mean that even water stored in baobabs will seldom last the whole dry season
Despite the scale of the intrusion, the tree remains alive
When the rains come, some water flows naturally into the cistern from above, but more can be captured to top it up by digging holes nearby
Each baobab tree has a name. This cistern is in Gambelle (‘The Strong’)
In parts of Madagascar where it rains only a few times a year, every drop that can be must be stored
Flood water surrounds shelters near the Avenue of the Baobabs in Madagascar’s western Menabe region
At the end of the dry season a last reserve of water can be found in the root of a baobab, dug up and peeled with a machete
Each tree is owned by a family that keeps close track of the water level inside
A metal sheet covers this cistern’s access window to stop animals getting in
Baobab root can be used to make a nutritious, watery porridge
A woman with her baby in a shelter made from the wood and bark of a baobab
The Avenue of the Baobabs at night
Pascal Maitre was born in the village of Buzançais in central France and studied psychology before starting his career in photojournalism in 1979 with the Jeune Afrique magazine. Over four decades he has documented life, politics, conflict, tradition and the natural environment in over 40 African countries. He has published several books, including In the Heart of Africa and Madagascar: Travels in a World Apart, which gathers images from 15 years of working across the continent.
All photographs Pascal Maitre/Panos Pictures