L’Arbre du Ténéré — or, as Anglophones call it, the Tree of Ténéré — was lone acacia growing in the middle of the Sahara desert in Niger, Africa.
The acacia was first described by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1773.
The only tree within more than 250 miles (400 km) in all directions, it was known as the most isolated tree on Earth.
For decades the tree stood alone, used as a solitary landmark on the horizon line by caravanners crossing the Sahara’s Ténéré region in northeast Niger.
If not for being hit and killed by a truck in 1973, the tree might still be standing today. It appeared to have tapped a deep reservoir of water: In 1939, the construction of a nearby well nearby revealed the remarkable depth of the tree’s root system — 115 feet below the surface. A metal sculpture honoring the tree now stands at the exact location.
On May 21, 1939, Commandant des A.M.M. Michel Lesourd of the Service Central des Affaires Sahariennes (Central Service of Saharan Affairs) wrote:
“Chief Sgt. Lamotte…has a good chance of finding water. He has already dug to a depth of 35 metres and the water has started to ooze. At that depth the roots of the Acacia can be seen, which explains, it seems, some reason for its existence.”
“One must see the Tree to believe its existence. 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 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. There is a kind of superstition, a tribal order which is always respected. Each year the azalai gather round the Tree before facing the crossing of the Ténéré. The Acacia has become a living lighthouse; it is the first or the last landmark for the azalai leaving Agadez for Bilma, or returning.
“The birds rest at the foot of the Tree. Attracted from afar by its presence, they come to shelter, thinking they will find water and green foliage.
“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.”
But the Sahara wasn’t always so dry. Around 10,000 years ago, the region was lush with vegetation, driven by monsoons and rain. Around 30,000 petroglyphs of river animals like the crocodile have been discovered, many in Algeria. Rock art discovered in southwestern Egypt depicts swimmers in cave pools.
Ténéré was also a much wetter place. It is believed that the Tree of Ténéré was not always alone.
“Some 6000 years ago this was a verdant land,” wrote Raymond Mauny of Dakar’s Musée de l’Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire (IFAN Museum of African Arts), in 1959.
“We discovered there several Neolithic and Palaeolithic strata in the sand-hills containing snail shells,” Mauny wrote. “The Tree of Ténéré is the last descendant of the acacia forests which certainly must have covered the country. A real relic of vegetation of better times where snails could venture without damage for hundreds of kilometres from the actual habitat.”
In 2007, the United Nations Economic and Social Council issued a report about the problem of desertification in Africa, defining it as “a process of land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas, resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities … [which] manifests itself through soil erosion, water scarcity, reduced agricultural productivity, loss of vegetation cover and biodiversity, drought and poverty.”
Oases throughout northern Africa could be in danger the few remaining surface water sources dry up. There have been plans to help mitigate this problem, such as the building of a huge “sand wall” from Mauritania to Djibouti. Wells deep below the surface will become more important for the region’s shrubs and trees.
In 1935, the French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry crashed his plane in the Libyan Sahara desert en route to Saigon. He and his navigator André Prévot survived without water for four days before being rescued by a Bedouin and his camel.
He wrote about this experience in his famous 1943 novella The Little Prince. In it, the titular prince says, “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”
But to really see the beauty of a hidden well is to see the beauty of a tree to which it gives life. Once upon a time, the lonely Tree of Ténéré was that beauty.