Baobab reforestation efforts show rapid impact in Madagascar

Down To Earth speaks to two scientists on efforts to conserve the iconic trees of the world’s fourth-largest island

By Ngala Killian Chimtom
Published: Wednesday 10 April 2024

Baobab trees in Madagascar. Photo: iStockBaobab trees in Madagascar. Photo: iStock

In a groundbreaking conservation endeavour, the Global Society for the Preservation of Baobabs and Mangroves (GSPBM) has initiated a mission to rejuvenate the iconic baobab trees. These ancient giants, threatened by deforestation and climate change, are receiving a lifeline through seedling transplantation.

EOS Data Analytics (EOSDA), committed to leveraging space technology for Earth’s preservation, collaborated with Seheno Andriantsaralaza, president of the GSPBM and principal investigator of the ARO Baobab Project. Their findings reveal that positive effects from seedling transplantation become evident within months.

The company’s EOSDA Crop Monitoring platform, based on satellite data, tracked the Andranopasy baobab forest. A comparison spanning 2018 to 2023 showcased a remarkable transformation. Since February 2023, the NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index)—a crucial indicator of plant and tree health—has consistently remained higher than in previous years.

The study revealed that transplanting baobab seedlings yields significant improvements in vegetation and moisture indices. This rapid positive impact bodes well for the local ecosystem.

“Our work highlights the role of satellite data in understanding and addressing environmental issues,” said Vasyl Cherlinka, a soil scientist at EOS Data Analytics in an interview with Down To Earth (DTE).

“…we aim to establish sustainable practices for the use and export of baobab products, ensuring that benefits are shared with the local communities who are integral to the conservation process,” Andriantsaralaza told DTE.

In the following interview, Andriantsaralaza and Cherlinka speak about the study and the benefits it could bring to the baobab conservation effort. Edited excerpts:

Ngala Killian Chimtom (NKC): Watching from the air, what do the figures show about baobab loss in Madagascar and have you been able to make inferences with what is happening to baobab populations in other parts of the world?

Vasyl Cherlinka (VC): In our work at EOS Data Analytics, a provider of AI-powered satellite imagery analytics, we observe Earth from a sun-synchronous orbit, rather than directly from the air. This unique vantage point allows us to monitor and analyse environmental changes on a global scale, including the baobab forests of Madagascar.

Now, while our platforms are equipped to measure deforestation rates, this specific study did not utilise those solutions due to their custom nature, which requires fine-tuning for each client’s needs. Furthermore, in Madagascar, baobabs are interspersed among other tree species, complicating the process of creating a precise baobab map for tracking changes. It’s also important to note that baobabs exhibit slow growth rates, and our historical data spans only a few years, limiting our ability to observe significant behavioural changes over time.

Despite these challenges, we recognise the critical situation facing baobabs due to deforestation in Madagascar. While our study did not extend to other regions, we are aware that climate change poses similar threats to baobab populations in places like Benin and the savannah regions of Africa. However, examining these areas was beyond the scope of our current story of impact.

Vasyl Cherlinka, Soil Scientist at EOS Data Analytics

Our work highlights the role of satellite data in understanding and addressing environmental issues. Although our study focused on Madagascar, the methodology and insights it provides are valuable for conservation efforts worldwide. As we continue to advance our technology and methodologies, we aim to contribute more effectively to preserving vital ecosystems like baobab forests and beyond. So we are open to similar requests from activist groups, researchers, and institutes looking for ways to monitor and track changes in the ecosystem they are taking care of.

NKC: You have indicated that the 2018-2023 vegetation comparison at the Andranopasy baobab forest, where seedlings were transplanted in February 2023, shows a dramatic contrast. How dramatic is the contrast?

VC: The contrast observed in the Andranopasy baobab forest’s vegetation, from 2018 to 2023, following the transplantation of baobab seedlings in February 2023, is indeed striking. Our satellite data analytics, retrieved from EOSDA Crop Monitoring, reveal a significant shift in the area’s vegetation health and density as indicated by the NDVI, a key metric for assessing plant growth and vigour.

Prior to 2023, the NDVI maps consistently showed very scarce vegetation in this area during mid-July across several years. The historical data suggests that the field might have suffered from fires or logging activities rather than extreme droughts, given that the climate conditions, including precipitation and temperatures, remained relatively stable without significant deviations that could impact vegetation negatively to such a degree.

However, the landscape underwent a dramatic transformation in 2023. For the first time in our observational history, the NDVI shows positive dynamics, indicating healthier and denser vegetation. This change is particularly noteworthy because it occurred within months after the baobab seedlings were transplanted. Such a rapid improvement suggests that the soil in the area is healthy and the seedlings are thriving and contributing to the overall ecosystem’s recovery.

The graph displaying NDVI dynamics from 2020 to 2023 further illustrates this point, with NDVI values from February 2023 onwards being significantly higher than in previous years. This enhancement in vegetation health is a direct testament to the impact of the newly transplanted baobab seedlings. Their ability to create a microclimate that supports the growth of other plant species could be accelerating the positive effects on local biodiversity.

NKC: What motivated the setting up of the GSPBM?

Seheno Andriantsaralaza (SA): The motivation for establishing the GSPBM originated from a collective realisation among Malagasy researchers, all of whom hold PhDs with a focus on baobabs. Despite our individual research endeavours, we recognised a critical gap between academic findings and actionable conservation efforts. Established in 2019, GSPBM was our response to this gap, aiming to directly apply our research towards the conservation and sustainable use of baobabs.

Our inspiration was further fueled by the urgent need for baobab conservation that requires comprehensive strategies encompassing legal, environmental, and community-focused approaches.

We are committed to fostering a bridge between scientific understanding and practical conservation actions. Through collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment and other stakeholders, we aim to establish sustainable practices for the use and export of baobab products, ensuring that benefits are shared with the local communities who are integral to the conservation process.

NKC: How is climate change driving the loss of baobab forests?

SA: One of the most direct effects of climate change on baobabs is the alteration of rainfall patterns. Our research has observed that baobab seedlings are particularly vulnerable to the lack of rainfall, suffering in conditions that have become drier over the years. This reduced rainfall not only hampers the growth of new baobabs but also stresses mature trees, affecting their ability to thrive and reproduce.

Furthermore, climate change exacerbates forest fragmentation, a phenomenon that poses another layer of threat to baobabs. With the changing climate, habitats become more isolated, disrupting the ecological balance. A notable consequence of this is the reduction in animal dispersers, such as lemurs, which play a crucial role in baobab seed dispersal. The absence of these dispersers means baobab seeds are less likely to be spread across suitable habitats for germination and growth, further hindering the regeneration of baobab populations.

Moreover, the increased dryness and resulting forest fragmentation contribute to a heightened risk of fires, which can devastate baobab forests. These fires, often exacerbated by human activities, can quickly consume vast tracts of forest, including baobabs that have stood for centuries.

NKC: Why are baobab trees so important to Madagascar?

SA: Ecologically, baobabs are keystone species in Madagascar's unique landscapes. Their massive trunks and extensive root systems are vital for storing water in arid environments, providing a critical resource for both the trees and the surrounding ecosystem during drought periods. This ability to store water enables baobabs to support a wide array of life, from microorganisms to larger animals, fostering biodiversity in their habitats.

Economically, baobabs offer potential for sustainable development through the utilisation of their fruits and seeds. Baobab fruits are highly nutritious, rich in vitamin C, and have a variety of uses in food and medicinal products. The demand for baobab products on the international market presents opportunities for local communities to engage in sustainable harvesting practices that can support livelihoods while ensuring the conservation of these trees.

Culturally, baobabs are deeply woven into the Malagasy way of life and hold significant cultural and spiritual value. They are often found near villages and are considered symbols of life and prosperity. Many communities associate baobabs with ancestral spirits and use them as sites for rituals and ceremonies, underscoring their role in the social lives of the people.

Seheno Andriantsalaraza, Principal Investigator of ARO Baobab Project

Finally, baobabs are iconic symbols of Madagascar’s extraordinary natural heritage. Their majestic presence and longevity, with some individuals living for over a thousand years, serve as a living link to the island’s ancient past. They remind us of the resilience of nature and the importance of preserving such irreplaceable treasures for future generations.

NKC: What explains the fact that of the six baobab species in Africa, five are in Madagascar?

SA: Actually, there are seven species of baobabs in Madagascar, and six of them are endemic to the island. This distribution can be attributed to Madagascar’s long geological history of isolation.

Madagascar split from the African continent about 160 million years ago and from the Indian subcontinent around 88 million years ago. This separation has allowed for the evolution of its flora and fauna in relative isolation, leading to an exceptional rate of endemism. For the baobab trees, this has meant that the species found in Madagascar have evolved independently, adapting over millions of years to the island’s diverse and distinct environments.

The endemic species of Madagascar’s baobabs have adapted to various ecological niches, from dry deciduous forests to semi-arid areas, each developing unique characteristics that enable them to thrive in their specific habitats. For instance, the water-storing capabilities of baobabs are a critical adaptation to the often arid conditions in Madagascar.

Moreover, the evolutionary story of Madagascar’s baobabs is intertwined with the island’s overall biodiversity. The mutualistic relationships between baobabs and the fauna of Madagascar, such as pollination by nocturnal lemurs and other creatures, further underscore the deep ecological connections within this unique ecosystem.

NKC: If the world fails to keep global temperatures at 1.5 degrees Celsius, what do you think will happen to Madagascar’s baobab trees?

SA: Climate change, particularly increased dryness, is already impacting baobabs in southern and western Madagascar. Baobab seedlings are struggling due to a lack of rainfall, and the situation could worsen with further increases in temperature.

The scenario you suggest would likely exacerbate the challenges faced by baobab trees. Increased temperatures can lead to more severe and prolonged droughts, further reducing water availability in regions where baobabs grow. This would not only affect the trees’ growth and survival but also the regeneration of baobab populations, as seedlings are especially vulnerable to water stress.

Moreover, rising temperatures could alter the phenology of baobabs, affecting their flowering and fruiting patterns. This has implications for the entire ecosystem, as baobabs play a crucial role in providing food and habitat for a variety of species. Disruptions to these cycles could affect pollinators and seed dispersers, leading to cascading effects on biodiversity.

From a broader perspective, increased temperatures and changing precipitation patterns could lead to shifts in the distribution of baobab populations, with some areas becoming unsuitable for their growth. This could result in a loss of genetic diversity, weakening the species’ ability to adapt to future climate changes.

NKC: What are the basic objectives of the ARO Baobab Project?

SA: The ARO (Assessment, Research, and Outreach) Baobab Project, funded by the PEER USAID program, embodies a comprehensive approach towards the conservation of Madagascar’s baobab forests. The project’s name, “ARO”, signifies “to protect” in Malagasy, encapsulating its mission to safeguard baobabs.

The basic objectives of the ARO Project are as follows:

Conservation and Restoration: A core goal is to conserve and restore the baobab forests of Madagascar. The project seeks to turn evidence from research into actionable conservation strategies to protect these vital ecosystems.

Research on Seed Dispersal: The ARO Project places significant emphasis on researching the seed dispersal mechanisms of baobabs. Recognising that some baobab species rely on animals to disperse their seeds—a process compromised by the extinction of large native animals—the project investigates how existing animals like rodents contribute to baobab seed dispersal and forest regeneration. This research is crucial for understanding how to support natural regeneration processes in baobab habitats.

Community Engagement and Sustainable Livelihoods: Collaborating with local communities is at the heart of the ARO Project. By involving communities in conservation activities, such as pilot nurseries and reforestation, and aiming to ensure sustainable and fair trade of baobab fruits, the project seeks to demonstrate the value of baobabs as a sustainable resource. This engagement is intended to empower local populations to protect their environment while improving their well-being.

Nature-based Solutions and Fair Trade: The project also aims to provide nature-based solutions that benefit both the baobab forests and the local communities that depend on them. By promoting the sustainable and equitable trade of baobab fruits, the ARO Project hopes to create economic incentives for conservation, ensuring that local people have a vested interest in protecting baobab trees.

Through these objectives, the ARO Project addresses the critical challenges facing Madagascar’s baobab populations by combining scientific research with practical conservation actions and community involvement.

The ultimate aim is to safeguard the future of these majestic trees and, by extension, the rich biodiversity of Madagascar, while fostering sustainable development for its people.

NKC: Baobabs take a very long time to start bearing fruits. How do you convince local communities to plant, nurture, or preserve baobabs? What value do they get from the tree?

SA: Engaging local communities in the conservation of baobabs involves demonstrating both the immediate economic benefits and the long-term ecological and cultural values of these trees.

The ARO Project encourages local communities to protect baobabs by showing them how these trees can provide a stable source of income in the future, despite their long maturation period. The key here is sustainable and fair trade of baobab fruits, which can offer more reliable and ongoing financial benefits compared to the immediate but short-term gains from cutting down the trees for quick money.

By participating in the conservation and sustainable harvesting of baobabs, communities can access markets where baobab products are valued, ensuring a continual income. This approach helps them understand that preserving baobabs, despite the wait, can lead to a sustainable livelihood, contrasting the temporary relief from selling timber or engaging in other destructive practices. The project aims to build a partnership with communities, where they are involved in conservation efforts, providing them with a vested interest in the survival and health of the baobabs and their environment, ultimately contributing to their well-being and economic stability.

This approach is complemented by education on baobabs’ ecological importance and active community involvement in conservation actions like pilot nurseries and reforestation efforts. By highlighting the intrinsic value of baobabs in maintaining biodiversity and preserving cultural heritage, the project aims to foster a sense of ownership and responsibility towards these iconic trees among local populations.

Such a multifaceted strategy seeks to ensure that communities see the preservation of baobabs as beneficial, encouraging their active participation in nurturing and protecting these trees for future generations.

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