Saving South Africa’s upside down trees

August 31, 2009

Former forester Sarah Venter is putting her forestry and conservation knowledge to work with unique research in northern Limpopo to ensure South Africa's iconic baobab trees survive climate change, agricultural sprawl and increasing demands for their seeds. She's also making sure that all future management plans take into account the contribution baobabs make to the livelihood of rural women.

by Kathy Waddington, freelance journalist

Upside down trees Sarah Venter

An iconic South African sunrise: baobabs in silhouette.

Sarah Venter: studying the environmental and ecological sustainability of baobabs.

Sagole Tree Surviving baobabs

The Sagole Tree is officially South Africa's 'Champion Tree', according to the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry. Height: 22 m, Stem size 33.72 m (circumference), Crown size: 34.3 m & 41.7 m. Its estimated age is 2 500 years.

The new road now winds among the trees that survived, thanks to interventions by Sarah and the traditional leader in the area.


Adansonia digitata has for centuries survived in parts of the African savannah where the climate is so hot and dry that other plants and animals battle to survive.

Each one creates its own ecosystem that pulses with life: elephants relish the leaves and absorb moisture from the bark and baboons and monkeys feast on the fruit. Birds, notably Mottled spine-tailed swifts, bees and bats make their homes in hollowed-out trunks. Fruit bats and bush babies pollinate the flowers, which last only 24 hours before falling to the ground as food for various antelope species – and humans.

But as urbanisation and habitat encroachment take their toll, the giants, despite their size, longevity and resilience, are under threat. Baobabs are protected by legislation and, to an extent, by their place in Venda culture. But their locale is often remote and not easily policed, and urbanisation is impacting on cultural values. Goats and livestock trample and eat seedlings. Climate changes, too, have an effect since germination occurs with consistent rainfall, and they're found generally in marginal locations such as north Venda and the Sahara Desert.

Sarah's study will quantify the biological and environmental factors that affect their sustainability – and fill crucial gaps left by other research.

Sarah received a BSc in Forestry and Conservation from the University of Stellenbosch and a Masters degree in environmental management from the University of Free State. Her current work is towards a PhD at Wits University.

"I spent five years looking after the indigenous forest in Limpopo Province," she says. This was followed by five years setting up and working with an NGO involved in community upliftment and avi-tourism. She spearheaded the setting up of the Limpopo Birding Route.

In 2005 Sarah founded Eco Products, the first South African business to wild-harvest baobab seeds. Her small enterprise exports, and supplies to national outlets, organic, cold-pressed oil and fruit pulp.

Since then she's been working in the remote reaches of north Venda with a team of 500 otherwise unemployed women. She speaks fluent Venda and, having lived all her life 'close to the earth' in the Soutpansberg, she has an innate understanding of the people and the environment.

"I think it helps enormously that I'm not an outsider coming in to do this work," she says. It was thanks to her close relationships with the people that scores of baobabs are still standing alongside a stretch of new road on the way to the Sagole baobab, South Africa's largest tree and a tourist attraction. Ironically, many of these specimens were doomed when surveyors plotted a road that would plough through the baobab-dense landscape.

On one of her monthly visits to the 100-plus trees that make up her research tracts, she saw the 'signs of death' – white Xs painted on the marked trees for the fellers – and headed straight for the local chief.

"He wasn't aware that the roads department was about to destroy them, or the implications of this. We made urgent calls for a change of heart, which stopped the builders in their tracks."

As you drive along the road that winds around the magnificent baobabs, you'll catch glimpses of the white Xs, some now obliterated by splashes of red paint, that are reminders of how close these trees came to being chopped down.

She believes education and building awareness are integral to her job. "How can the people continue to benefit from the trees if they don't know about conservation or biology?" she asks.

The women eke out a living from a livelihood strategy involving the indigenous flora and fauna of the region.

"Each season supplies something, whether it's collecting baobab fruit and seeds (from June to August), marula seeds, or mopane worms – they provide a spread of subsistence income throughout the year."

Apart from collecting seeds for Sarah, they've learnt biology and conservation through helping with monitoring study specimens and collecting rainfall data.

"While my aims are to study the biological and environmental factors that affect baobab fruit production and the recruitment trends, it will also document the socio-economic benefits of commercialisation and, ultimately, make recommendations for the management of the species," said Sarah.

Published in July/August 2009

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