‘Mother of the forest’: why local enthusiasm could be the baobab’s saviour

After driving through the eroded highlands of central Madagascar, we descend to the western plain and see the first Grandidier’s baobabs (known locally as Renala) towering like skyscrapers over the fields and crops. As we head for the coastal town of Morondava, the sun is setting and I am treated to the fantastic sight of these iconic trees silhouetted against the purple-pink sky.

I’m here to see and discuss the Global Trees Campaign’s work with Madagasikara Voakajy to conserve the country’s three threatened endemic baobab species. As we approach Morondava, we stop at a school where the project has been raising awareness among teachers and their students about how special the Renala is and the role it plays in the environment.

Grandidier's baobabs are known locally as Renala. Credit: Georgina Magin/FFI/GTC.

Two giants, side by side – Grandidier\’s baobabs are known locally as Renala. Credit: Georgina Magin/FFI/GTC.

A hoard of excited children rushes out to greet us, keen to show us the Renala seedlings they planted last October. I am amazed: some of the seedlings have grown to over 3 feet high in just 7 months! The children have been watering them enthusiastically, and it’s encouraging to see how the seedlings have responded.

School children show off a Renala seedling. Credit: Georgina Magin/FFI/GTC.

School children show off a Renala seedling they have planted as part of the project’s awareness raising work. Credit: Georgina Magin/FFI/GTC.

That evening, I meet the Voakajy team who have been down here for over a month, working on a range of activities. In the next two days we visit four more schools that have been part of the awareness programme, and two communities that Voakajy is helping to get management control over their baobab forests.

The school facilities are basic and the villages under-developed, but at each one the enthusiasm of the villagers, teachers and children for Renala conservation is apparent.

The great provider

The Renala (which means ‘mother of the forest’) is a tree that naturally elicits enthusiasm and superlatives. If a tree ever had charisma, it is surely Grandidier’s baobab.

Giant in size, distinct in shape, its physical presence is impressive. It is also a great provider, not only for the bats that feed on the nectar and perform vital pollination services (it was the bats that got Voakajy interested in the trees in the first place), but also for humans who eat the plentiful and nutritious fruit, use its bark for roofing, rope and medicines, and extract oil from its seeds.

The fruits from the Renala are highly nutritious. Credit: Georgina Magin/FFI/GTC.

The fruits from the Renala are highly nutritious. Credit: Georgina Magin/FFI/GTC.

As we travel around the area, I am struck by how these iconic trees really define the landscape. They are clearly an important part of the local culture and identity too, with the image and name widely used by local businesses.

The Renala’s value as a flagship for the conservation of remnant forest patches is underlined when we visit one of the community forest areas – selected for attention because of its baobabs – where a few individuals from two species of lemur are hanging on (literally!). Fantastic!

Red-fronted lemur. Credit: Georgina Magin/FFI/GTC.

Protecting baobabs also helps conserve other species like this red-fronted lemur. Credit: Georgina Magin/FFI/GTC.

As we bump along the dirt roads, I have extensive discussions with Daudet Andriafidison, Voakajy’s committed project leader, on the biology, life cycle, threats to and conservation of the species.

As with most biodiversity issues, the problems are complex, information is incomplete, threats are multi-faceted and finding solutions is not simple. New dangers are emerging in the form of commercial exploitation of the fruit, which – if unregulated – could seriously undermine the Renala’s ability to reproduce.

But despite all this, I am cautiously optimistic. Surely the sheer charisma, benevolence and local popularity of this mother of the forest means this is one conservation challenge that can be won…