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Volume 58, Number 5September/October 2007

In This Issue

A Cypress in the Sahara

Written By Louis Werner
Photographed By Kevin Bubriski

There are only 233 of them on Earth growing in their native soil. Some are as young as 30 years old; others may date back two millennia. They can be 22 meters (70') tall and up to 12 meters (38') around. In the local language, Tamashek, they are named individually, by some attribute: “The Carpet One” or “The One by the Flat Stones.”

Many of them drink from seasonal pools. Others must wait for the rare cloudburst to send rainwater rushing past. All somehow have learned to survive in highland “islands” within the world’s largest desert. And only a few people, including Wawa Muhammad Hamid and Muhammad Beddiaf, have seen nearly every one of them.

Hamid is a warden in southeastern Algeria’s Tassili n’Ajjer National Park, and Beddiaf is an archeologist who has walked almost every one of the park’s 100,000 hectares (386 sq mi). What is dear to both their hearts, and what they have sworn to protect, is Cupressus dupreziana—in English, the Saharan cypress, or tarout in Tamashek—listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature as one of Earth’s rarest tree species.

In botanical terminology, “young specimens grown in protected conditions are first bushy, later developing a straight central axis. Bark is reddish-brown, with deep longitudinal fissures.... Branches diverge from the trunk at large angles, curving upwards.... Leaves are cupressoid scales....”

All this makes for a dignified tree, a kind of weather- and drought-beaten version of the Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) immortalized in the paintings of Vincent van Gogh—and all the more impressive for its harsh setting. But this comparison means little to Hamid.

“I played in these trees as a boy,” he says, remembering his childhood as a goatherd. “We took their shade, and used them as meeting points and landmarks. A traveling man might leave his belongings hanging in a bag from their limbs for years at a time, and know that everything would be waiting for him safely whenever he returned.”

To Europeans, conifer trees in the midst of the Sahara had been a rumor since 1860, when the English explorer H. B. Tristram wrote in his book The Great Sahara: Wanderings South of the Atlas Mountains, “to judge from the woodwork of the [Tuareg] saddles, there is also a species of hard resinous wood probably allied to junipers.” He was close: The Juniperus genus is adjacent to the Cupressus genus within the cypress family, Cupressaceae.

Still, this cypress species was not described scientifically until 1924, after it was seen by the man for whom it is named, Captain Duprez, commander of French forces at Fort Charlet in the Djanet oasis, at the foot of the nearly 2000-meter-high (6500') Tassili plateau. He wrote to a biologist, “I discovered one day in a small wadi called Tamrit a tree with foliage and habit too unusual for the area not to attract my attention.” At the time, only a handful of these cypresses were said to be in existence, their seeds were thought to be sterile, and their extinction was anticipated in a matter of years.

Today, the Saharan cypress has better chances of survival. In part, this is thanks to investigations by Algerian paleoecologist Fatiha Abdoun, the one person who has seen every Saharan cypress still alive in its native habitat. Two young trees in Wadi Tamrit, where many are clustered, were thought to have slim odds of survival when French botanists measured them in the 1950’s but, five decades later, Abdoun has found them healthy. Their slow, two-millimeter-per-year radial growth rates compare well with those of their close cousin the Atlas cypress (Cupressus atlantica), whose habitat in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains has an annual rainfall 15 times greater than that of the Tassili. And no less fittingly, that first tree found by Captain Duprez is thought to be still alive and healthy at the head of the wadi.

But if the tree has proved to be successful in germinating, taking root and adapting to increasingly arid conditions, Abdoun says it may not be able to outwit its latest challenge: growing numbers of mostly European tourists, led by the commercial outfitters who have flourished since the end of the Algerian civil war in the late 1990’s. They flock to the Tassili plateau not so much for the trees, but to view a remarkable gallery of late Paleolithic and Neolithic rock art.

“I discovered one day in a small wadi called Tamrit a tree with foliage and habit too unusual for the area not to attract my attention.” — Capt. Duprez, commander of French forces at Fort Charlet, 1924There are also more local problems. According to Abdoun’s complete tree census, conducted between 1997 and 2001, the cutting of branches and roots for firewood, and the damage to trees from grazing goats are thought to be responsible for the death of eight percent of the trees first counted in 1972. What she hopes is that the tourism industry “will involve itself more in the protection of the trees and of the area in general,” she says, “for its prosperity comes from the appreciation and conservation of the region as a whole.”

She notes that Henri Lhote, who popularized the region’s prehistoric art in his 1959 book The Search for the Tassili Frescoes, wrote of having to burn newly cut cypress wood in order to cook his expedition’s dinners. “One might almost deduce from this,” she says ironically, “that it was really the tree that discovered the frescoes, and not a man.”

Surprisingly, there is also a threat to the trees from flooding. Wadis, dry most of the year, can run fast and high one minute and go back to dry the next. The cypress’s roots meander wide and shallow—the better to grab diffuse, infrequent surface moisture—but lack a firm-footed taproot. As a result, like other cypress species, the tarout often twists above and among stony streambeds, and is vulnerable to upsets in floods. Such flash floods are as common here as they are in the American Southwest: In June 2005, the popular Tuareg singer Osman Balli was killed when his Land Rover overturned in high water at a wadi crossing in the middle of Djanet, and in January 2006 the northern Tassili town of Illizi was severely damaged in a flood.

A further threat to the tarout comes from African emigrants on their way toward Europe, whose crossings on foot often take them from Djanet to the Libyan border town of Ghat. They must often burn wood to stay alive on winter nights when temperatures can drop below freezing. So many have passed this way that the direct line between the two towns is now denuded. Carpentry is a historical use of tarout wood, but is now less of a threat: An Italian–Libyan archeological expedition examined some cypress-plank doors in Ghat and determined through carbon-14 analysis that the wood was cut at least 500 years ago. Local carpenters now work with other, introduced species, such as eucalyptus.

Muhammad Beddiaf was Abdoun’s co-author on a 2002 scientific paper on the tree census, which reported that, since the early 1970’s, 10 newly germinated trees, in addition to 13 previously uncounted ones, have slightly more than made up for the 20 that had died from cutting and burning.

Beddiaf, a specialist in the area’s rock art, imagines how the trees might be somehow connected to the rock artists. “These cypresses were present at the time of the artists—perhaps not these very same trees, but ones from which these have grown. The artists were surrounded by their greenery. They no doubt relaxed under their branches. So I find it odd that the trees should not be represented in their art.” Except for a few diagrammatic renderings of gardens, dating from the most recent artistic era known as “the camel and horse period,” only hunting and war scenes are represented, in which human and animal figures seem to hang in midair.

Tuareg oral literature too seems bereft of mention of the tarout. At the campfire, Beddiaf has an extensive command of his people’s poetry and song, but when pressed for an ode to the tarout, he can muster only a tribute to other trees—as firewood!

From the fire of the acacia,
Every day it throws off sparks.
From the fire of the iseem plant,
Every day you grill two mouflon.
From the fire of the ajar tree,
Every day you shoot the arrow straight.
From the fire of the tamarisk,
Every day you eat gazelle tripe.

Tarout in Tamashek is originally a butcher’s term for the windpipe and attached lungs of a grazing animal. It is said that the tarout tree, when its slightly asymmetrical crown is in robust foliage, takes on the shape of these organs held windpipe-down, and that the term was applied to the tree because of this resemblance. But trees are often given individual names as well, referring for instance to a person who uses the tree’s limbs to hang his goods on (Tin-Ambarak or Tin-Gaded), or to a local landmark, such as a nearby mountain (Tin-Tamanzazt) or a pool of water at the tree’s roots (Tin-Balalan).

Today, the Saharan cypress is closely studied by botanists, not only because of its rarity, but also because it is the only species in the plant kingdom known to reproduce by cloning its male genetic material through a process known as male apomixis. Female apomixis—the division of female cells inside a flower’s ovary as a means of seed formation—is common in several species, including dandelions and blackberries, but male cloning requires an additional step unique to the Saharan cypress: Pollen, carrying the male cells, enters the tree’s ovule, but instead of combining with the female cells, it divides internally to become a viable seed genetically identical to itself.

Female apomixis occurs in several species, including dandelions and blackberries, but in male apomixis, male cells enter the tree’s female ovule and there divide internally, becoming a viable seed genetically identical only to the male parent. “In human terms, this is the equivalent of a mother giving birth to a baby that is genetically unrelated to her, but genetically identical to the father,” explains Richard Primack, professor of biology at Boston University.

An experiment in which pollen from the Cupressus dupreziana was dusted onto the female cones of the Mediterranean cypress, whose resulting seeds were germinated and grown for 15 years, culminated in trees physically similar and identical in their DNA to the “father” tree, but unlike the “mother.” There is no obvious evolutionary advantage to this. If other conifer species were to grow nearby—and they do not—then perhaps the pollen of the Saharan cypress could be said to profit by “borrowing” these other cones, using their ovules merely as incubators. Even so, as in all cloning, this would lead to an evolutionary dead end: genetic invariability and a species not capable of adapting to changing conditions.

Rob Nicholson, head of the Smith College Botanic Garden in Northampton, Massachusetts, collected seeds in 1985 from cypresses in the Tassili to study artificial propagation methods. One tree he germinated in the greenhouse shot up so fast it had to be cut down in order to save the roof. He has sent hundreds of cuttings from seedlings to botanic gardens in Atlanta, Pasadena, Houston and elsewhere. “To see healthy trees growing in the ground that you have started years earlier from small cuttings is almost like seeing your own child graduate from college. You feel they’ve made it!” he says.

But these New World transplants are only the latest that, since the mid-20th century, have been grown outside their home habitat. France’s oldest botanical garden, the Jardin des Plantes in Montpellier, has eight healthy specimens of Saharan cypress, while the Villa Thuret in Antibes, France, which is part of the Institut National de Recherche Agronomique, has grown trees studied closely by Christian Pichot and Muhammad el Maataoui, who first discovered its unique genetic behavior.

It was long known that only about 10 percent of seeds from both wild and cultivated Saharan cypress trees have a viable embryo, so the tree’s low fertility rate was thought to be intrinsic to the species. Pichot and el Maataoui recently determined exactly why: The tree’s meiosis—its cell division prior to reproduction—is wildly erratic. Instead of the pollen dividing neatly in half to create a pair of diploid cells, which contain two sets of chromosomes, it often creates cells containing one or four sets of chromosomes —or none. Only diploid cells can successfully germinate.

Aroute that takes in about half the Tassili’s 233 known trees covers territory between Wadis Tamrit, Riey, Tichouinet, InGharouhane, Amazar and Tefatast—a good walk of six days covering 160 kilometers (100 mi). Retired Algerian government forester Said Grim covered much the same ground in 1972 when he conducted the first full Saharan cypress census. Supported by a 15-donkey pack string, he traveled for three months, relying on word-of-mouth reports from Tuareg herders he met along the way to direct him to the next tree. Now living in retirement in Montreal, Grim remembers that trip as his career’s greatest challenge. “We tried to find every last tree,” he says, “and I think we were successful.”

Before that, in 1965, the trees in several wadis were photographed by a French botanical team, and many of these same trees can still be seen today—with thicker crowns, due no doubt to the relatively good rains of recent years. The physical descriptions from back then are bleaker than today’s: They speak of uncovered roots, recumbent trunks and mutilated branches. The words peu fructifié (“not thriving”) stand out. Although Beddiaf has not seen some of them since before the rains returned, he is guardedly optimistic.

“I don’t think we have a problem with drought for the moment,” he says as he surveys a large guelta, or pool of standing water. It is big enough to have been given its own name, InWatika, in memory of a man called Watika, who was buried nearby. A flock of pin-tailed sandgrouse, known here as ganga chata, rests beside the pool. Jerboa and fox tracks crisscross the bank. A curious mula-mula, or white-capped black wheatear, hops from branch to branch in an acacia. Clearly there is still life, and the potential for even more life, in this high desert.

A recent study by Abdoun has shown that young cypress trees can take quick advantage of even extremely brief wet cycles—even winter hoarfrost and summer morning dew—sometimes adding more than one ring per year and adding radial growth at a rate up to 10 times faster than older trees. She also found that, in some cases, trees temporarily stop growing annual rings altogether, which is perhaps a genetic adaptation to periods of severe drought.

“They need people like me. Some are like babies, some are like old men, and some are still strong and can live by themselves.” And old trees, just like old humans, slow down considerably: Abdoun’s carbon-14 analysis showed that a tree in Wadi Tichouinet estimated to be 2200 years old, with a trunk radius of 63 centimeters (25"), has taken three-quarters of its life just to grow the last one-third of its width. A tree in Wadi InGharouhane is thought to have taken 1130 years to add just 25 centimeters (10") to its radius. These widely varied growth patterns, dependent upon microhabitat fluctuations, make it difficult to correlate rings in different trees to specific years. One tree may benefit from rain runoff coursing through the sandy soil it is rooted in, while a tree very nearby may miss even a quick sip.

Ahmad Hadrawi is a former park warden who now sells blankets in the Djanet marketplace. He retired in 2004 after spending 33 years in the field, much of it in tree protection. Over that time, he cared for his charges by reburying roots exposed by flooding, searching for new growth and collecting seeds for the National Forestry Research Center in Algiers. He got to know the trees almost as people.

“These trees need experts to help keep them alive,” he says. “They need people like me. Some are like babies, some are like old men, and some are still strong and can live by themselves.”

Hadrawi is correct to say that the trees need people—if only to protect them from tour groups scrounging for campfire wood. “The one we call Tin-Balalan,” he says, referring to the tarout with a 12-meter (48') girth in Wadi Amazar, “is, you know, the biggest in the world. It will not die anytime soon.” He is also correct about this, if we can assume that girth is relative to age. When last seen in February 2006, Tin-Balalan had a healthy crown and was drinking from a standing pool of water near its roots.

Louis Werner Louis Werner is a free-lance writer and filmmaker living in New York. He can be reached at [email protected].
Kevin Bubriski (www.kevinbubriski.com) is a documentary photographer who lives in southern Vermont. His solo exhibition “Nepal Photographs: 1975–2005” is on view at the Visual Arts Center of Union College in Schenectady, New York.

This article appeared on pages 32-39 of the September/October 2007 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 2007 images.