FREETOWN: A centuries-old, towering tree that served as a historic symbol in Sierra Leone has been felled during a wind and rain storm in the capital Freetown, the government said on Thursday.

The 70-metre (230-foot) Ceiba pentandra -- lovingly known by Sierra Leoneans as “Cotton Tree” -- lost all of its branches late Wednesday, with only the base of its enormous trunk still standing, a government statement said, citing “torrential rains and high winds”.

It estimated the tree to be around 400 years old.

“All Sierra Leoneans will pause for thought at the loss of such a prestigious national symbol as Cotton Tree,“ President Julius Maada Bio said.

“For centuries it has been a proud emblem of our nation, a symbol of a nation that has grown to provide shelter for many.”

According to legend, slaves who won their freedom fighting on the British side of the American War of Independence prayed under the tree when they arrived in West Africa.

It adorned bank notes and stamps, was visited by Queen Elizabeth II in 1961, and had remained a landmark ever since.

Freetown residents continued to pray beneath the tree, which in recent decades towered over a busy roundabout near the national museum, the central post office and the country’s highest court.

- Shock and heartbreak -

Hundreds of people, including President Bio, visited the site in mourning throughout the day Thursday.

“I’m shocked and heartbroken to see our beloved Freetown Cotton Tree destroyed this morning on my way to work,“ Gibrilla Sesay, a 34-year-old finance worker, told AFP.

In a statement, the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs appealed to the public not to cut off wood from the debris, which it said would be taken to the national museum.

“In order to preserve the remains of the rich cultural heritage of our beloved city, relics of the fallen tree will be secured and preserved”, it said.

There were no reports of injuries, the government said.

The police and military were deployed around the area Thursday, an AFP reporter said, and the government announced a clean-up effort was under way.

Parts of the tree had previously caught fire in 2018 and 2020.

Sierra Leone has suffered several climate-related disasters in recent years.

In 2017, more than 1,100 people were killed in a mudslide in the capital when part of a mountain collapsed onto informal settlements.

Another eight people were killed in a landslide last August.

At least 15 people died in flooding earlier in May, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.

Sierra Leone’s rainy season typically lasts from May to October. -AFP

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