By Andrew Mambondiyani
CHIMANIMANI, Zimbabwe, July 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A black baobab tree stands forlornly on the side of a highway in Chimanimani district, in the east of Zimbabwe. The tree is one of many in this region afflicted by a mysterious disease, which turns the baobabs black before they lose their branches and die.
The giant trees, which dwarf their more common acacia and mopani neighbours in this dry part of the country, have long been revered as a way to survive drought.
Families cook and eat the leaves as a vegetable. The fruits can been eaten raw or cooked into porridge. Baobab seeds substitute for coffee. And the bark fibre can be woven into mats.
"Porridge made from baobab fruits has saved many people from dying in times of drought," villager Dorcus Chiadzwa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But environmentalists fear a disease that is now attacking baobabs - particularly those that have had part of their bark harvested - could wipe out entire baobab populations and leave people battling drought with fewer survival options.
"Initially the disease attacked damaged trees but it's spreading to other trees. And the disease is spreading very fast," warned Lawrence Nyagwande, who heads Environment Africa, a non-governmental organisation in Zimbabwe's Manicaland province.
He said there was little research available on what is causing the disease - suspected to be caused by one or more fungus species - or how to stop it from spreading.
With Zimbabwe struggling with a devastating El Nino-induced drought, which has decimated more than half of the country's food crops, many people in drought-hit areas of the east are now depending on baobabs for survival.
According to government officials, at least 4.5 million people are food insecure in Zimbabwe as a result of the drought. The country is seeking up to $1.6 billion in aid to feed those unable to grow crops.
"Many people are harvesting the fruits to sell. These fruits are bringing much-needed income for villagers," Chiadzwa said.
The fibre from the baobab trees is also used to make mats, which are now in demand from tourists travelling the Mutare-Masvingo highway. Along that route, women and children selling baobab fruits and mats are a common feature of the landscape.
But villagers say the disease that is turning baobabs black has afflicted many trees in the dryer parts of Chimanimani, Chipinge, Buhera and Mutare districts. They fear it could wipe out the entire baobab tree population there.
"The disease is now widespread in these areas," said Malvern Mudiwa, one villager. "But I don't know what is causing the disease. The trees are turning black before they finally die".
Chiadzwa said the villagers were worried that their source of livelihood might be wiped out.
"The affected trees are no longer producing fruits. The tree branches fall before the tree finally dies," she said.
TOO MUCH STRESS?
Experts suspect that the fungus which may be attacking the trees takes hold after a tree is damaged by having bark removed. Extended drought may also be stressing the trees, reducing their ability to withstand the fungus or recover from bark harvesting.
"Normally it takes six months or more for trees to recover after the barks have been removed for mats," said Clive Kapfumvuti, another villager. "And during this recovery time trees are susceptible to the disease".
Kapfumvuti said many people in drought-hit areas like Nyanyadzi in Chimanimani district were earning up to $6 a day selling baobab fruits.
"Money from baobab fruits has helped to sustain many people here," he said.
Because the trees have no national commercial value, little research has been done on how to save the baobab trees, experts say.
A senior official with the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, Paul Mupira, told during journalists at a May press briefing in Mutare that baobab trees were dying in large numbers.
He said there was also a lack of young trees growing to replace those dying, in part because people were collecting baobab seeds for food.
"Animals are eating the young plants," he said. "People eat the small plants too as vegetables."
Nyagwande, of Environment Africa, said villagers in the affected areas were being encouraged to plant more baobab trees to reverse the decline.
"Unless something is done as matter of urgency, baobabs face extinction," he predicted.
(Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani; editing by Laurie Goering :; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)