L'Arbre du Ténéré, known in English as the Tree of Ténéré, was a solitary acacia that was once considered the most isolated tree on Earth — the only one for over 400 kilometers. Standing there in the Sahara Desert, it had once been part of a lush and populated forest, but as fortunes changed and other trees disappeared, it stood alone in a barren desert, 120 miles from any other tree, an isolated landmark for caravan routes through the Ténéré region of the Sahara in northeast Niger for hundreds of years. The tree was so well known that it and the Arbre Perdu or 'Lost Tree' to the north are the only trees to be shown on a map at a scale of 1:4,000,000.
The tree survived hundreds of years of desertification, until one day in 1973, a drunk truck driver struck it down.
The Tenere region was not always a desert. During the prehistoric Carboniferous period it was a sea floor and later a tropical forest. Dinosaur roamed the region and it was once the hunting ground of a crocodile-like reptile nicknamed the SuperCroc. Tenere was inhabited by modern humans as long ago as the Paleolithic period some 60,000 years ago. They hunted wild animals and left evidence of their presence in the form of stone tools. During the Neolithic period about 10,000 years ago, ancient hunters created rock engravings and paintings that can still be found across the region.
But gradually, climate change reduced the area to a desert as the trees perished. The Ténéré region became inhospitable with little vegetation and an average annual rainfall of only 2.5 cm. Water ended up being scarce even underground. By sometime around the early 20th century, a small group of the thorned, yellow-flowered acacias were all that remained of the trees of the Ténéré. Over time, all but one died, leaving it as the only surviving tree in a 400 kilometer radius.
When Commander of the Allied Military Mission, Michel Lesourd, saw the tree in 1939, he wrote:
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.
After the tree was struck down, the dead tree was moved to the Niger National Museum in the capital Niamey. It has since been replaced by a simple metal sculpture representing the tree.
Tree of Ténéré in 1939
Tree of Ténéré in 1967
Tree of Ténéré in 1970
Tree of Ténéré in 1973 after it was hit
Tree of Ténéré in Government issued stamp in 1974
Tree of Ténéré today
Tree of Ténéré National Museum in Niamey, Niger