CHIMANIMANI - A mysterious black fungi epidemic threatens to wipe the giant baobab trees particularly in Nyanyadzi, Chimanimani district.
Forestry Commission Provincial Manager Phillip Tomu said his organisation was concerned and conducting studies on the impact the bacteria could have on baobab populations.
“We are aware and carrying out some studies on effects of fungi and its impact on baobab species in Zimbabwe especially in Nyanyadzi area,” Tomu told Daily News on Sunday in an interview.
Worryingly their demise could pull the rug from locals’ livelihood and economic foundations because almost every part of the tree is useful.
Its bark is used to make mates and various other artefacts; its leaves are used as relish; its seed roasted to make coffee, its fruit used to make porridge, something they fall back on during droughts and its seedlings are harvested for its juicy bulb roots.
Although the bacteria is a mystery to locals, in South Africa it is listed among the major threats to baobab trees as it has an impressive resilience in arid regions as it has the capacity to live for more than a thousand years.
South African farmers have been reporting of blackened and dying trees for several years now with resultant studies pinning the problem on the fungi.
Debarking of the tree for making mates and other ascetic artefacts is the biggest predisposition to the bacteria that is threatening baobab across the southern African region, scientists say.
Mike Wingfield of the University of Pretoria who participated in one of the studies said their working theory was that the fungus only takes hold when a tree is already damaged.
“One theory is that elephants are damaging them,” Wingfield, the director at Pretoria’s Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute.
“I think elephants eat and damage, the stems of the trees... and then these secondary organisms start to infest on them.”
It is however human, not elephant damage, that are combining to distress the plant locally.
And in Nyanyadzi, the theory is proving to be true because instead of elephants its locals who routinely debark the trees to make mates giving room for infection by the fungi which appears to be spread by wind.
“The disease initially attacked damaged trees but it’s spreading to other trees,” Environment Africa’s Lawrence Nyagwande observed.
Extended drought may also be stressing the trees, reducing their ability to withstand the fungus, a local environmentalist Moses Chimedza warned.
“Although baobab is amazingly resilient and is like a cactus in that it is spongy and stores up water in its bulging stem it is vulnerable to draught.
“Nyanyadzi area has not had any meaningful rain in a long time and has been experiencing extremely high temperatures due to weather extremes that come with climate change which could possibly have a cumulative effect of weakening them against disease,” Chimedza said.
Worryingly, locals are professing ignorance about the risk their activities are posing to the survival of the tree species they depend so much on for their livelihoods.
Gideon Chiurwi, a Nyanyadzi villager said the disease appeared from nowhere and has been spreading more notably over the past few years.
“We used to count trees with this conditions in one hand but currently almost every other tree is affected.
“This will affect us so much. Nyanyadzi is famed for its crafts and these trees are the source of our livelihoods,” a downcast Chiurwi said.
National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe Eastern Region director Paul Mupira, whose organisation has investigated the regeneration challenges of the tree as there are very few young trees in the area said the situation was dire.
“Baobab regeneration is under severe strain because of the mysterious disease with the few plants that take root are destroyed by livestock and people also use the small plants as vegetables.
“There is need to continue research to adequately inform any interventions,” Mupira says.