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Baobab Trees Attacked by Giant Mammal

The plan was to hunt antelope, so he rented a skiff, paddled to a nearby East African island, hopped out, and wandered into the woods, when all of a sudden, there it was—a staggeringly enormous, weirdly shaped plant towering over him and looking, one imagines, something like this:

Photograph by Beth Moon
Photograph by Beth Moon

Right away this young French explorer, Michel Adanson, put down his gun (“I laid aside all thoughts of sport”) and decided to measure this thing. “I extended my arms, as wide as I possibly could,” he wrote later, and it took him 13 turns to complete a full rotation. That worked out to roughly 65 feet around at the base. Deeper into the woods he found even bigger ones.

The locals called them “baobabs.” Scientists now name these trees Adansonia, after the young explorer who, in 1749, was the first white man to see them. To many humans, these trees look ungainly, like they might have been plucked from some other spot, then tossed upside down onto the ground, with a bunch of hairy roots dangling upward. That’s how we see them.

But we don’t matter. Because the baobab has bigger things to worry about. It is being stalked—dangerously, ferociously stalked—by the biggest mammal in Africa.

Drawing of an elephant looking over its shoulder
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

When a thirsty elephant sees a baobab, what it sees is a big fat bottle of water. The trunk of a baobab can store 100,000 liters, or 26,000 gallons, even during harsh drought conditions. The water concentrates in the spongy center of the trunk, keeping the branches small, dwarflike, so when the leaves drop off, what’s left is a wet, chewable inside.

Baobab photo by Luis Marden, National Geographic Creative; Bottle photo and GIF by Becky Harlan
Baobab photo by Luis Marden, National Geographic Creative; Bottle photo and GIF by Becky Harlan

The elephant will approach the tree, strip the bark, gouge a hole, and then start pulling out its wetter, spongy insides. Imagine a watermelon in your mouth. That’s what the elephant gets when it strips, gouges, and chews on a baobab. Here’s a mom doing just that:

The strange thing, writes Richard Mabey in his new book The Cabaret of Plants, is that elephants don’t just sip from baobabs, they devour and destroy them. This isn’t drinking. It’s more like murder.

“They attacked them with a ferocity that seemed to go beyond the simple satisfaction of big appetites. They trashed them. They tore off whole branches, devoured the leaves, stripped the bark entirely from the lower parts of the trunk to reach the moisture underneath, and often knocked the smallest trees flat.”

The trees are often bigger than their attackers—this is a clash of giants—and they know how to fight back. When stripped of their bark, they can regrow it. They repair themselves when they can, and when they can’t, if a baobab has been broken and is lying deathlike on the forest floor, it will often reroot, or reboot, writes Mabey, “pushing up new columns, snaking out new limbs parallel with the ground.” Count the many distinct trunks on this baobab tree; it looks like it’s come back five or six different times:

Very large baobab tree that is probably the width of five normal trees, a man in a red shirt stands at its base, dwarfed by the size
Photograph by Science Photo Library, Alamy

They look like silent giants, but they’re not. They have moves (in slow-motion, yes), but over time they “can swell, shrink, curl, explode and creep about.” They are shape-shifters. And though locked in mortal combat with these dexterous, powerful mammals, the two sides have—for the moment anyway—achieved a pugilistic balance. They both throw punches, but neither is down for the count. Plus, both stay big and both stay strong.

And the funny thing is, I find myself rooting for both of them. I can’t pick a favorite. Who doesn’t like an elephant? Who doesn’t like a baobab?

Photograph Courtesy of Minnano Safari
Photograph Courtesy of Minnano Safari

11 thoughts on “Baobab Trees Attacked by Giant Mammal

  1. The problem is, the number of Baobab trees is now just a fraction of their population from a half a century ago.

    1. It’s true, that baobab trees — especially those that are special to Madagascar — have been having a rough time. They are on an island, and they’re getting hemmed in by farmers, plus the climate is changing, getting wetter and warmer, so those baobabs are getting pinched. The biggest ones, though, on the African continent, they’re ok for the moment. They’re the ones the elephants suck on, and they’re still bouncing back, if you can call a 50 year repair job a ‘bounce’.

  2. A few years ago I bought some baobab seeds at a garden shop in Paris. I brought them home to Bali and planted them. In 5 years I had these enormous trees. I had no idea they would grow so big so quickly. I love those trees. If I ever make it back to Paris I will once again go back to that garden shop and hunt down a few more of those seeds. I wouldn’t mind having more around.

    1. Jake — I am SO jealous! Your own baobabs in the backyard! I wonder what that must be like; part of me thinks it would a little disconcerting, like having the Guggenheim Museum (the spirally one that’s such an attention grabber)out your kitchen window, right next to you. Or having Leonardo DiCaprio camping out on your lawn. Do I want to live cheek to jowl with a movie star? (I’m thinking about this….yes! I would.) Lucky you, Jake.

  3. It be a battle of the big.
    The baobab tree does stand tall,
    Thousands of years old since a twig,
    Not much on Earth could make it fall.
    But then the elephant comes by,
    Thirsty for all the water in
    The baobab, (for drought that’s why).
    So the elephant does begin
    To strip the bark and gouge a hole,
    Beating the pulp out of the tree,
    Gulping all water as the goal.
    Oh such beastly ferocity!

    The battle of behemoth hunks.
    Both be wearing extra large trunks.

  4. I am wondering whether the Baobab tree has adapted to get an advantage from being periodically torn down by elephants. Is it possible that the elephants are actually helping the trees grow bigger or are they just plainly hurting the trees?

  5. This was unique article thank you I your article for my school report on “Werid thing that animals do.”

  6. It’s a very interesting article. I never knew elephants did that to Baobabs of Africa. These trees are found in India as well, thanks to the seeds brought here centuries ago from African travellers to India. Considering that elephants too are found in India, do they ‘drink’ the tree in the same way? That would be an interesting thing to find out.

  7. I just found out today that in my town and area, Baobabs are rare. To even say you have one has people looking at you like you’re a smuggler.

    I was getting a permit to export one out of town (young-30 years old). I didn’t want to scare the whole Conservation Department, that there are 4 full grown ones (hundreds of years old) in the backyard of one of our houses.

    They really gave me a shock, these trees and many others which have gone extinct from my village, were and still are very common to us.

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