Earth's most isolated tree, the only one around for 250 miles, was knocked down by alleged drunk driver

Arbre du tenere in 1961
CC BY 2.0 Michel Mazeau

For centuries, until one fateful day in 1973, a lone acacia tree grew in the sea of sand that is the Nigerian Sahara desert. For generations of weary travellers, the solitary tree offered a bit of shade, and so much more. As the only tree around for 250 miles, it served as an important landmark along a long-established caravan route through the barren terrain, but also as a monument to the resiliency of life.

Though the improbability of its survival still comes as a heartening testament that life can indeed thrive in the harshest of places -- the story of its sad demise is a bitter reminder of how even a single moment of human recklessness can destroy a wonder so long wrought.

The Tuareg people, a nomadic tribe in the region of Ténéré, had already come to cherish the tree, but by the late 1930s, it caught the attention of outsiders too. European military campaigners marveled at the lonely acacia in the desert, calling it L'Arbre du Ténéré (The Tree of Tenere), and its inclusion on cartographers' maps made clear the tree's rather remarkable distinction as the earth's most isolated tree.


View Arbre du Tenere in a larger map

France's Commander of Allied Forces described L'Arbre du Ténéré as something truly special -- not only for its ability to survive in the stark desert, but also for the restraint countless passersby had shown in letting it be.

"One must see the Tree to believe its existence," wrote Michel Lesourd in 1939. "What is its secret? How can it still be living in spite of the multitudes of camels which trample at its sides?

"How at each azalai [caravan] does not a lost camel eat its leaves and thorns? Why don't the numerous Touareg leading the salt caravans cut its branches to make fires to brew their tea? The only answer is that the tree is taboo and considered as such by the caravaniers."

That year, a well was dug near the tree, offering a hint to how it had managed to survive in the sand. The tree, only around 10 feet tall, had roots that stretched down more than 100 feet to the water table. It was estimated to be around 300 years old, the sole survivor from an ancient grove that existed when the region was less arid than it is today.

Like all things, this living wonder which had managed to thrive despite the odds stacked against it, was destined to one day die -- but how it met its end perhaps speaks more of human nature than of Nature itself.

According to a contemporaneous report, in 1973 a truck driver, following a roadway that traced the old caravan route, collided with the tree, snapping its trunk. In an instant, one single act of carelessness severed a link to history, so deeply rooted in the desert sand and in the ethos of generations that had come to cherish it.

The driver, who remains unidentified to this day, is alleged to have been drunk at the time of the accident.

Holger Reineccius/CC BY 2.0

Not long after, the skeleton of the sacred tree was relocated to the National Museum of Niger and placed in a mausoleum, its tangled frame propped up as one might a holy relic -- a gesture indicative of its importance to people in the region.

Likewise, at the spot where L'Arbre du Ténéré had grown, a simple metal sculpture was erected, marking the spot where a truly remarkable tree had so long stood against the odds and a backdrop of sand and dunes, and where nothing like it will likely ever stand again.

Holger Reineccius/CC BY 2.0

Tags: Africa | Biology | Niger

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