The enduring legacy of Chapman’s Baobab

  • Written by  David Clement-Davies
  • Published in Forests
Chapman’s Baobab in happier times Chapman’s Baobab in happier times
23 Feb
2017
What was once one of Botswana’s most iconic pieces of natural scenery has fallen, but is the legend really dead? David Clement-Davies looks at the tree’s history and the landscape’s future

Once you could see the giant for miles, a proud sentinel and communal letter box standing on that Pioneer ‘Road’ into the African interior, a road taken by the likes of Dr Livingstone. Now, as we skirted the little farm edging the Kalahari, flowering after unusually heavy February rains, the skyline was strangely bereft. A metal sign marked this spot as a National Monument, while a ring of stones and a waist-high gate led us to a dying legend: Chapman’s Baobab.

The gigantic tree, one of the largest and oldest on Earth, got its name when South African explorer and elephant hunter James Chapman came here on 10 July 1852 with a hundred horses and cattle and recorded being ‘lost in amazement, truly, at the stupendous grandeur of this mighty monarch of the forest.’ Now the King was dead, beached like a greying whale, its strangling roots forming a sort of cave into the drying innards, its seven great trunks having split in three main sections, after the mighty baobab fell down last year.

The fallen Chapman’s BaobabChapmans baobabThe fallen Chapman’s Baobab

That was on 7 January 2016, the same week an American descendant of Livingstone had visited and the day after the hottest day ever recorded in Botswana. A local farmer heard it cracking across the Kalahari with a mighty groan and crash, the effective end of a long and very remarkable piece of natural history. But it’s a human history too, not least in the story of Livingstone, that ‘Scramble for Africa’ and the blood river of Big Game Hunters that came this way.

Michel Adanson, the French naturalist who travelled to Senegal in the 1740s and gave the scientific name to the African baobab, Adansonia digitata, claimed baobabs could live to 5,000-years-old. On one baobab he recorded the signature of Henry the Navigator, the 15th century Portuguese prince and originator of the Age of Discovery (and the Atlantic slave trade) from 1444. The 5,000-year claim shocked Livingstone, perhaps because the God-centred doctor could not accept the challenge to the biblical time line, taking the tree’s sprouting back to the pyramids, maybe even the Great Flood. Although baobabs, with fibrous, shallow and water-guzzling roots, working like blotting paper, do not develop tree rings as such, Livingstone’s own calculation of another fallen tree, after measurements of the 100ft circumference, was 1,400 years. The government sign for Green’s Baobab, we saw in wonder the next day, flourishing ten kilometres north, claims (probably wrongly) a paltry 500 years and other estimates put Chapman’s at just 1,000.

The Baines’s BaobabWill the Baines’ Baobabs suffer a similar fate to Chapman’s? (Image: Shutterstock)

Regardless of age, why did this giant of time and life suddenly give up the ghost last year? Our guide, Ruh, smiled at a San bushman who spoke of it like a person, the tree just ‘letting go of its spirit’. But he had also noted, in 2015, that one of the branches was bleeding gum. Last year a scientific survey team came up from the University of Botswana to study it, but it has yet to deliver a report. Perhaps the baobab simply reached a natural end. Perhaps, if the rains we saw this year had come earlier, it might have had more moisture to support its massive, spreading weight. Indeed, as we clambered over the greying corpse, shoots were sprouting from it. But it is unlikely, with its central root system torn up, that there can be any recovery or, as rumoured, that it might somehow be restored. Perhaps an un-invasive conservation centre might sprout beside it instead?

A local travel company, Uncharted Africa, is surprised it has not decayed more quickly, so is not sure that it is dead. It hopes that two of the three central sections will survive. One of its guides is trying to photograph it regularly from different angles, although follow ups over work done on a section of the ‘mail box interior’ with a Hungarian team of scientists has not born fruit. Meanwhile, to stop goats grazing on it, or elephants eating the bark, a little electric fence was put up, perhaps ineffectually, but a proper cattle fence may be put in too.

Chapman's baobabChapmans Baobab
The artist Arabella Caccia getting rubbings and taking casts of engravings left on the Chapman’s Baobab, including those made by Dr Livingstone

Will the fall of a national monument negatively affect tourism and local livelihoods (although the hunt for baobabs can be a rarefied, expensive sport)? If the King is dead though, true study can only help the conservation of its brothers and sisters such as Green’s or the impressive Baines’ Baobabs, a cluster some 80 kilometres further on from Chapman’s, named after the explorer, gold prospector and painter Thomas Baines.

I was here with a painter myself, Arabella Caccia, to add a peculiar element to any story of conservation, or at least some kind of preservation. Arabella had come to Botswana in 2014 to draw baobabs. Now we were armed with pots of silicone, to pluck art from catastrophe, and to get casts of some of the famous initials still scored into the barks, especially on the fallen Chapman’s. Among them are the marks Livingstone made on the west sides of the trees, tellingly for a man some consider a saint, just simple crosses. They will be turned into wax moulds, then bronze casts for a wider exhibition, and since the tree will eventually crumble away altogether, they are perhaps historic record. Graffiti to some, despoliation to others, certainly only a fleeting, colonial speck in the amazing lifespan of Chapman’s Baobab, but also a strange conjunction of astonishing natural and human history, one that should not be lost or forgotten.

Arabella Caccia and David Clement-Davies are planning an exhibition and book, and perhaps a wider conservation project around the baobabs and would be grateful of any backing and support. Please contact the author at [email protected].

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    REDD+ or Dead?
    The UN-backed REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) scheme, under which developing nations would be paid not to cut dow...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...

Mapping

Sometimes referred to as the fourth dimension, time has a…

Forests

A global, citizen-led carbon sequestration scheme is aiming to combat…

Mountains

Among the Himalaya region, which along with most of the…

Cities

Beijing looks set to welcome to its streets an innovative…

Cities

The next step towards declaring London a National Park City…

Mapping

The spatial distribution of healthcare workers globally tells us a…

Forests

After an ‘unprecedented’ surge northwards into New Jersey, New York…

Forests

The historic end of civil war in Colombia has had…

Mapping

Where in America can the country's various hate groups be…

Water

The southern US state is sinking twice as fast as…

Cities

An increase in visitors is putting severe strain on Iceland’s…

Cities

Air pollution campaigners hold a disco roadblock, but can it…

Cities

Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality…

Forests

HSBC has requested a Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil investigation…

Mapping

Benjamin Hennig explores visions of a world made bright by humanity

Forests

The EU has asked the European court to authorise an…

Forests

Was last year’s El Niño a practice run for future…

Cities

Far from being separate threats, scientists have found links between…

Mountains

Is the official height of Mount Everest accurate?

Mapping

Where in the world is the highest density of languages?…