Adventures in Botany, Part 2: Adansonia digitata absent from the north and west of Uganda

Adventures in Botany, Part 2: Adansonia digitata absent from the north and west of Uganda

By Cory W. Whitney

This is the second edition of the story of hunting for the Baobab (Adansonia digitata) in Uganda.

The literature has so far suggested that the species is absent in Uganda, both from the wild and cultivated lands. Last year, we traveled through and found a number of specimens planted in the country and published the first record in Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 1.  This year we went back and traveled many thousands of kilometers through the northern and western regions along the West Nile and borderlands with Sudan and the Congo.


Shea butter (Vitellaria paradoxa) producer under in a small village in West Nile, Uganda. Photo by Cory W. Whitney

During our travels along the dusty roads of the northwest, we found no Baobab. We found instead a dryland forest with many friendly communities of indigenous Ugandan farmers and hunter-gatherers (mostly Central Sudanic speaking Lugbara, Madi, and Kakwa peoples). We also found many refugees, refugee camps, and roads filled with trucks from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

South Sudan is the world’s newest nation, after decades of civil war they have formed their own country, but then proceeded to flight over resources and now live under a divided government and army. Having lived their whole lives at war, many people have no other skills. Recently the Murle and Lou Nuer indigenous peoples have started fighting, erupting violence from cattle raids and retaliations have caused many to flee. Consequently, masses of Sudanese travel south to try to escape to northwestern Uganda, and other countries. Ninety percent of the refugees are women and children.


Prof. Dr. Jens Gebauer and Dr. Katja Kehlenbeck looking toward the dry borderlands in search of the Baobab (Adansonia digitata) in West Nile, Uganda. Photo by Cory W. Whitney

The countryside is scattered with massive refugee camps. Sadly, the conditions were very poor with food shortages and water-borne diseases, there were several outbreaks in the refugee camps while we traveled through of cholera and other diseases. News traveled quickly through the markets and town centers, both of the illness in the camps and of the strange car full of researchers traveling through looking for the Baobab. Our little car and all the UNHCR trucks kicked up a lot of dust.

Similarly to our last explorations the locals often convincingly suggested that the Baobab was growing on their land but instead, often after a long ride and hike into the bush, we found Sausage tree (Kigelia africana), Kapok (Ceiba pentandra), and even once a Jatropha (presumably because the inside the nut is similar to the hair on the small Baobab fruit we carried as a sample).

Our original hypothesis was that the interactions with the Sudanese and the potentially suitable growing conditions of the northwest were good conditions for the Baobab and we would find it there. Our discovery was rather that despite the many Sudanese refugees in the north none have brought the Baobab with them. The conditions are not of peaceful immigration, where people might bring seeds and plant a garden, but rather a people fleeing the horror of war, running for their lives, and escaping with nothing.

We looked very hard and can somewhat confidently conclude that these dry northern areas, rich in Kapok and other dryland trees that often share eco-systems with Baobabs in neighboring countries, do not yet harbor the species. This is surprising since it would have been much more at home in the northwest than in the relatively humid south where we found it during our last journey.

It is our sincere hope that in the future South Sudan will have peace. If the rural indigenous Sudanese and Ugandan people of the borderlands have the chance for a peaceful interaction we feel it will allow for the exchange of planting materials along with horticultural and traditional food and other practices for the propagation and extension of the range of this wonderful tree and the many associated cultural traditions.


Story first published in Plants and People, the Newsletter of the Society for Economic Botany. Find it here.

Cory W. Whitney is a student council member of the Society for Economic Botany (SEB). He is a PhD student at the University of Kassel in Witzenhausen, Germany, also a Human Ecologist,  World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), Nairobi / Center for Development Research (ZEF), University of Bonn
Scientific Staff, Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences in Kleve, Germany. 

Literature Cited:

  1. Gebauer, J., Whitney, C. W. & Tabuti, J. R. S. First record of baobab (Adansonia digitata L.) in Uganda. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 63, 755-762 (2016).

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