DAKAR, Senegal — Wide, awkward baobab trees blend into the cityscape of Dakar, the busy capital of Senegal, almost without notice.
Drivers wash a fleet of taxis parked beneath one giant tree near a freeway on-ramp. Rusting cars with open hoods are parked in a mechanic’s shop under the shade of another. A leathery trunk is a community billboard, with ads nailed to it for a plumber and an apartment for rent.
Aliou Ndour stood on a crowded corner, pulled out his phone and scrolled past the pictures of friends and family to another precious photo: the baobab in his home village.
Fat baobabs, some more than half a millennium old, have endured across Senegal, passed over for lumber largely because their wood is too brittle and spongy for use in furniture. Baobab leaves are mixed with couscous and eaten, the trees’ bark stripped to make rope, their fruit and seeds used for drinks and oils.
Something else has helped preserve these giants: They are beloved.
“This,” said Adama Dieme, craning his neck to look up at the spread of branches of the baobab on his block, “is the pride of the neighborhood.”
But baobabs, like many of the region’s trees, are in jeopardy, threatened by the same forces upending numerous facets of society — climate change, urbanization, and population growth.
West Africa has lost much of the natural resources once tied so closely to its cultural identity. Poaching has stolen most of its wildlife; lions, giraffes, and desert elephants are sorely endangered.
Huge swaths of forest are being razed to clear space for palm oil and cocoa plantations. Mangroves are being killed off by pollution. Even wispy acacias are hacked away for use in cooking fires to feed growing families.
A recent study said climate change might be blamed for the deaths of some of Africa’s oldest and biggest baobabs. In Senegal, local researchers estimate the nation has lost half its baobabs in the past 50 years to drought and development.
One of the biggest developments in the country is outside Dakar, where Senegal’s president is building an entirely new city, in the middle of a baobab forest. Officials have pledged to replant any trees they raze.
On the far edges of the development, construction workers were building new homes. The corpse of one baobab laid on the ground, a musty smell lingering at its exposed hollow interior. The smooth marks of an ax scarred its trunk.
Other charred carcasses of baobabs lay nearby. A worker said those had been torched with gasoline.
“Whenever you see a baobab that has fallen down, you’re sad,” said Gorgui Kebbe, the worker. “It’s a symbol of our country. But having a house to live in takes priority.”
In Senegal an image of a baobab is on the presidential seal. Baobabs are painted on the sides of buildings and on billboards. A fancy seaside hotel is named after them. So is a famous wrestler.
One baobab, which locals say is 850 years old with a 100-foot circumference trunk, is a tourist attraction. You can sleep in a baobab tree house hotel or ride a zip line course from baobab to baobab.
Senegal has few rivers and no mountains so baobabs sprout from the scrubby landscape as majestic way points. Throughout history, entire communities were constructed around these trees.
Baobabs serve as town halls — gathering places where municipal decisions are made, babies named and scores settled. Their bulging, python-like roots serve as La-Z-Boys for the tired. Their branches offer refuge for the overheated.
The trunks of some trees are covered in trinkets — a rooster’s claws, a bracelet, a plastic flip-flop, all for good luck. Pilgrims come to a stubby baobab on Île de Madeleine, a small island off Dakar, to insert money into the folds of its trunk or nail a message there, as a prayer of last resort.
The rainy season here has been starting later in recent years, and the downpours are fewer. As drought becomes a new way of life, the baobab in many communities is where people gather to pray for rain.
In Diock, a village about three hours outside the capital, the rainy season should be in full swing by now, but by early August it had rained only four times. The millet plants in the surrounding fields were only ankle high.
“We watch on television what is going on in Europe and in the world,” said Mamadou Diop, the village chief. “We know what’s coming.”
In towns and villages that dot the countryside, each community has its own tradition entwined with its local baobab.
In Diock, a new bride and groom circle the baobab seven times after they are married. On Fadiouth, an island on the southwest coast made entirely of seashells, funeral processions pause at the base of the village baobab, before carrying on to a Catholic shrine and the cemetery.
Seydou Kane, who works in Senegal’s Ministry of Culture, was circumcised under a baobab in the city of Thiès when he was about 4. Grown-ups had told him the trees were filled with spirits who grew angry if you touched the trunk. After the ceremony, he was told to nick the trunk of the tree with a knife. He gathered his courage and ran toward the baobab, marking it with his blade.
“You’re a man now,” he recalled the grown-ups telling him. “You don’t have to be afraid of anything.”
He passed by the tree not long ago, and it was dead.
“Everything from the baobab is beautiful,” Dione said, looking at the green oval fruit and white dangling blossoms, “from its leaves to its roots.”
The tissue inside some of Senegal’s oldest baobabs has died, leaving giant, cavelike holes. The hollow of one baobab in the coastal city of Nianing is big enough for a dozen people to stand in comfortably.
Once these hollows were mausoleums for griots, or storytellers, who were buried inside, standing up.
These men were considered walking libraries, the power of their words so strong their energy should radiate throughout the baobab for eternity. The practice was outlawed in the 1960s but locals still refer to the trees that were once tombs as sacred baobabs.
Many of the trees mark cemeteries. In Kaolack, 49 kings of the Guelewar Dynasty are buried under a baobab.
On a recent morning Aminita Ba, 72, stood tending goats in the middle of a wide field in rural Samba Dia that was punctuated by a single, towering baobab.
When Ba arrived on the farm 50 years ago, she built her small house near the tree, knowing it would be a guidepost for visitors.
“I’m very proud of this baobab,” she said. “From far away you can see this big tree, and next to this big tree is a home, and it’s my home.”