Sustainable futures for Madagascar’s baobabs

Conservation Problem
Madagascar’s threatened baobabs face an uncertain future; climate change, forest fires, grazing and fruit harvesting mean that trees are being lost faster than they can be replaced naturally.

Project Goal
Our aim is to improve and protect populations of Madagascar’s three threatened baobab species, in climate-resilient habitats, as well as ensuring harvesting of baobab products by communities is sustainable.

Why these species?

The iconic baobabs of Madagascar are found nowhere else on earth and, as a result, symbolise the island’s unique wildlife. The species are often promoted as a flagship for the nation, attracting tourism and investment in the country. Despite this, of the six species of baobab that are found in Madagascar, three are threatened with extinction, and are highly vulnerable to climate change[i].

Found in the country’s famous dry forests, alongside other threatened species including the Malagasy giant jumping rat and Verreaux’s sifaka (a species of lemur), all three baobab species are threatened because there is simply not enough of the good quality forest needed for the seeds (which require water and shade) to germinate and grow.

Frequent fires, resulting from shifting agriculture and the production of charcoal, can kill adult trees and seedlings alike, as well as destroying the forest understory (which is the only shade in this extreme environment). Grazing also affects the understory and saplings, resulting in fewer baobabs reaching maturity. In addition, adult baobabs are sometimes felled by people wishing to make rope (and other materials) from their bark, or to clear space for roads.

The impact of forest clearance in Perrier's baobab habitat. Credit; Madagasikara Voakajy.

The impact of forest clearance in Perrier’s baobab habitat. Credit: Madagasikara Voakajy

In northern Madagascar, two species, Diego’s baobab (Adansonia suarezensis) and Perrier’s baobab (A. perrieri), are further restricted to extremely small ranges and populations, mainly because their habitat is restricted by a specific soil type[ii]. In the west, Grandidier’s baobab (A. grandidieri) is similarly threatened by fire and grazing, but also by the rising demand for baobab fruit internationally, since it was promoted as a ‘superfood’ due to its high concentration of Vitamin C.

Declining habitat condition and over-collection of fruits have the potential to seriously affect the natural reproduction of baobab species. This situation must be rectified to ensure the species has the ability to adapt and thrive in a warming climate.

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

The fruits from Grandidier’s baobab are highly nutritious. Credit: Georgina Magin/FFI

What are we doing about it?

In partnership with Malagasy NGO Madagasikara Voakajy (MV), we have been working with communities in the north and the west of Madagascar to protect baobabs in their habitat. To do this, our core approach has been helping local people to secure co-management rights over forests containing important baobab populations and then helping communities to implement this management. We are supporting important species-specific actions, including:

  • Mentoring three communities to manage and protect Diegos’ and Grandider’s baobab habitat from fire and grazing
  • Expeditions to find new populations of Perrier’s baobab (the species with the smallest known population)
  • Experimental planting of Perrier’s and Grandidier’s baobabs in the wild, to assess seedling survival and improve our on-going planting efforts
  • Researching impacts of fruit harvesting on Grandidier’s baobabs, so far the only Endangered baobab species facing demand for its fruit
  • Supporting communities to collect, process and sell Grandidier’s fruit products sustainably, thereby enhancing local support for baobab conservation.
Student-baobab-seedling. Credit: Cynthia Raveloson.

A student caring for her planted baobab seedling. The fencing seen here protects the growing seedling from grazing and trampling. Credit: Cynthia Raveloson

Key achievements

Alongside three Malagasy communities and MV, we have successfully secured management rights of over ten thousand hectares of baobab forest which were previously completely unprotected. Over subsequent years, we’ve continued to support these same communities to protect the important Grandidier’s and Diego’s baobab populations found there. These communities already have improved baobab survival; for example in the western sites, no adult trees have been lost since the community began managing the forest, a stark contrast to previous years.

Since the beginning of this project, our partners and local people have collectively planted more than 3,451 baobab saplings into the wild, boosting population numbers of all three species. MV are building on this success, implementing scientific trials to improve germination rates for Perrier’s baobab so that greater numbers of seedlings of this extremely threatened species can be planted in the future. The lessons learned from these trials are now being put into practice; with Perrier’s baobab seedlings being produced in greater numbers in local nurseries established through this project.

Contact details

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[i] Vieilledent et al. (2013) Vulnerability of baobab species to climate change and effectiveness of the protected area network in Madagascar: Towards new conservation priorities Biological Conservation 166; 11–22

[ii] Du Puy, D.J., Moat, J.F., 1996. A refined classification of the primary vegetation of Madagascar based on the underlying geology: using GIS to map its distribution and to assess its conservation status. In: Lourenço, W.R. (Ed.), Proceed. Internat. Symp. Biogeo. of Madagascar. Editions de l’ORSTOM, Paris, pp. 205–218.

Did you know?

Fruit from the baobab tree has been called the new ‘superfood’ on the international market after it was approved for use in smoothies by the European Union in 2008.

Read more about trees valued for a source of food.