Namibia’s landmark trees dying from climate change

In Africa, News Headlines

An old man gently touches the trunk of the huge quiver tree with a worried look on his wrinkled face, as he points at several dead branches lying on Namibia’s rugged terrain.

“When I was a boy, my grandfather made my first quiver from a branch of this old tree about seventy years ago, but I fear the tree is dying — too many dead branches. Things changed over the past few years, and these trees just die,” he tells AFP.

Aaron Kairabeb works on a farm 200 kilometres (125 miles) southeast of Namibia’s capital Windhoek, where tourists go on scenic hikes and also view a cluster of the giant aloe trees that can live for more than 300 years.

They grow in arid regions of Namibia and South Africa and are well adapted to their environment through water-storing succulent leaves and shallow root systems. The Bushman or San people used to make quivers for their bows from the trees’ dead branches.

But over the past few years Kairabeb, who grew up in the area, noticed that large quiver trees — protected in Namibia and by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) — were drying out and toppling over.

Scientists found this is most likely caused by drought, with weather data showing that average temperatures have increased over past decades across the tree’s range.

The quiver tree is now red-listed in a report released by the Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) during last month’s climate summit in Copenhagen.

The report red-listed 10 animal and plant species, including the beluga whale, emperor penguin and the quiver tree as being threatened by climate change.

“The quiver tree is noted for its drought tolerance and longevity, but it may be operating at the edge of its physiological tolerance,” said report co-author Wendy Foden of IUCN. Die-offs have been reported since 2001 in Namibia and South Africa.

Namibia’s delegation to the climate summit returned disappointed at the non-binding accord to curb global temperature rises.

“Copenhagen was disappointing and world leaders failed monumentally to reach a binding agreement,” Prime Minister Nahas Angula told reporters on his return from Denmark.

During the summit Angula lobbied for Namibia?s recovery plan after two devastating floods hit northern regions in 2008 and 2009, while other areas suffered severe drought.

“Namibia requires 1.7 billion Namibian dollars (220 million US dollars, 153 million euros) for damages and losses suffered in these floods and another 3.8 billion Namibian dollars for longer term needs such as constructing more disaster resilient housing and infrastructure.”

Government in early 2010 plans a conference with donors to raise the funds.

A government report in 2008 found that temperatures have risen 1.2 degrees C (about two degrees F) in Namibia over the last century, making it the driest country south of the Sahara. And the increases are expected to keep rising.

Climate change could also hurt the economy, particularly farming and fishing, said environment and tourism minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah.

“Climate change may reduce Namibia’s fishing industry landings by up to 50 percent.

“Crop and cereal production that currently contribute together 1.5 percent of GDP will decrease by 10 percent to 20 percent,” Nandi-Ndaitwah said.

“Traditional (subsistence) agriculture that contributes 1.5 percent of gross domestic product could decline by 40 percent to 80 percent,” the minister added.

The former German colony has a population of some two million, with about 70 percent in rural areas dependent on subsistence agriculture.

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