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The Tragedy of the Tree of Ténéré

WORLD HISTORY | June 12, 2019

The Tenere in Niger. Source: (gettyimages.com)

In the heart of the Sahara is the “desert within the desert” the brutal region of the Ténéré. This sand-duned region stretches across northeastern Niger and western Chad and is extreme. Temperatures can reach highs of over 120°F, and the Ténéré sees roughly half an inch of rainfall annually. Ténéré means desert, if that wasn’t clear enough.

But curiously, it was not always so.

Tree of Tenere in 1961. Source: (wikimedia.org)

In prehistoric times, the Ténéré was wetter than it was now. Humans left their mark in the region with cave paintings and engravings. But wet periods alternated with arid, and the last truly hospitable period was roughly from 7,000 to 3,000 B.C. During this period so-called “Tenerian culture” emerged based on cattle ranching. This culture vanished as the land desertified.

As the Sahara expanded, vegetation diminished and then vanished. But a remnant of those flusher times existed until quite recently. An acacia tree, known as the Tree of Ténéré (Arbre du Ténéré) grew up in the middle of the waste, or at least it was the last member of some remnant grove. The tree was not exactly tall, it was not more than 10 feet high and was distinctive for its “Y” shaped trunks that created an umbrella of shade. In 1939 the French explorer Henri Lhote visited the tree and noted that while the trunk was degenerative, it had ample green leaves and yellow flowers. To be precise the tree was an Acacia tortilis, the umbrella thorn acacia.

Dune sea within the Tenere. Source: (Wikimedia.org)

But what made the Tree of Ténéré most distinct was its extreme solitude in the desert. Its closest neighboring tree was 250 miles away. Despite being short, it was seen from miles around and used as a landmark for caravans. It was considered the loneliest tree on the planet. It was honored by tribes in the region and none would harm it either for wood to burn or fodder for camels. It was even marked on military maps and was a typical stopping point not just for people but for birds who viewed the tree as a sign for water. A French officer wrote, “Unfortunately, it is death that is waiting. It is not a mirage, but just the same it is not a spring where turtledoves and crows and the pressing sparrows can drink.”

This was a puzzle – how could the tree survive in such a hostile environment?

It was realized that the tree had to be getting its water from below ground. The French dug wells near the tree and discovered that the tree had sunk its roots to 100 feet where it found the water table. 

The remains of the Tree of Tenere. Source: (Wikimedia.org).

After the 1939 visit by Lhote, the tree saw hard times. Sometime after Lhote’s visit, a truck hit the tree, destroying one of its primary limbs and withering it, although it was still alive.

The final blow came on November 8, 1973, when a purportedly intoxicated Libyan driver, following the former caravan route, swerved from the roadway and collided with the tree, knocking it down. The remains were taken by the Nigerian government and placed in the National Museum of Niger (Musée National Boubou Hama) in Niamey. It was thought that the tree was approximately 300 years old when it met its death.

Metal sculpture honoring the Tree of Tenere. Source: (Wikimedia.org)

It was impossible to plant a new tree in the same place, so a metal sculpture honoring the tree was erected in the spot. While the Tree of Ténéré is no more, its resilience remains an important symbol for the people of that region and for the world. Indeed, at the Burning Man, 2017 Symmetry Labs featured a sculpted “Tree of Ténéré.” While it looked nothing like the original and had LED lights, the legend of the lonely tree carries on.

Pavilion and remains of the Tree of Tenere, Niamey, Niger. Source: (Wikimedia.org)

Today, there are two candidates for the world’s loneliest tree. The first is a Sitka spruce planted on Campbell Island off New Zealand in 1945. Its nearest neighbor is over 170 miles away. However, since this was planted by humans it doesn’t have the same weight as the wild Tree of Ténéré. Another viable candidate may be found in London’s Royal Botanic Gardens which houses Encephalartos woodii, a rare cycad which is extinct in the wild and only male clones of the last tree exist.

Tags: sahara desert | Ténéré

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Joseph A. Williams

Writer

Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History. He is currently the Deputy Director of Greenwich Library (CT).