Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Baobab over exploited?

Much excitement in the papers this morning about the African baobab fruit, cleared for use in the UK for the first time. Packed with "six times the vitamin C of an orange", resembling a coconut and tasting like melon, everyone agrees that it's exotic and healthy. Among the excitement I received an email from a very unhappy lecturer from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in Durban:

For an environmentally aware person, [this] is the most depressing story I have read for a long time. Baobabs are an endangered species, and the idea that trendy Britons might now turn to eating them may well mean that they have no hope of recovery.

A cursory glance around t'interweb throws up little of concern - there are several varieties of the baobab, found in Australia, mainland Africa and Madagascar. Some sites claim the trees last for thousands of years, others point to 400-year lifespans. In the Beeb's report about the fruit's introduction to the UK, it says, there are "hopes the demand for the fruit will mean employment for millions of African people." That all sounds quite good.

A little more digging reveals less happy news: it appears that the Madagascan fruit - although this is not the variety we are importing according to reports - is indeed threatened, says the California Academy of Sciences' Cat Aboudara, "because of the changes made to their environment and the exploitation of their resources".

When I add "endangered" to my search, a few less cheery pages pop up. At the top is Save the Baobab from Practical Action Sudan, which asserts that droughts and overuse of the tree in Sudan have led to depressed stocks. When once elephants ate the fruit and dispersed the seeds, the site claims, now humans throw the seeds into city's bins, and a lack of local knowledge means there is no provision for replacing these trees. This site, however, claims that the baobab is not threatened, and was only considered to be endangered because the young trees didn't resemble the mature ones, this one claims the tree is still too numerous to be considered endangered, but acknowledges that it has been threatened by large-scale clearances and desertification.

So, as ever, on the interweb, as in life, there is little agreement and opinions from parties with a commercial interest.

Is there any other baobab intelligence out there?

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