Frankincense Supply Under Threat Of Drying Up
December 21, 2011

Frankincense Supply Under Threat Of Drying Up

Frankincense, a festive fragrance that has been harvested in the wild in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa since ancient times, is declining so dramatically that production of the resin could be halved over the next fifteen years, according to a new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Frankincense is produced by tapping the gum of trees in the Boswellia genus. It is traditionally used in incense and perfumes around the world and is a key part of the Christmas story -- one of the three gifts to baby Jesus by the three wise men; gold and myrrh being the other two.

But gold and myrrh may be the only gifts if ecological pressures continue on the arid lands where frankincense grows in Ethiopia.

Dutch and Ethiopian researchers studying the populations of the scrub-like trees in northern Ethiopia found that as many as 7 percent of the trees are dying each year, and seedlings are not surviving into saplings.

The researchers suggest that the Boswellia trees are significantly decline so rapidly that 90 percent could be gone within 50 years. Frans Bongers, a professor of tropical forest ecology and management at the University of Wageningen in Holland, said without Ethiopian Boswellia trees there will be no frankincense.

“There´s still some in Somalia, but no one knows how much. The main production area in the world right now is Ethiopia,” Bongers, who has studied the trees for the past six years, told USA Today.

Specialists have known for years that frankincense trees have not been doing so well, but the new research is the first hard data on them.

Frankincense is harvested by making cuts in the tree bark during the dry season. Cuts are made every two to three weeks, and the resin that emerges is collected. It isn´t clearly known how much frankincense is produced annually, but Europe imports about 400 tons each year, and about half of that goes to China for use in traditional medicines.

Most of that comes from Ethiopia. But a long-term push from the government to relocate people from the highlands to the lowlands, where the trees grow, is putting a tremendous strain on the ecosystem. Also heavy tapping of trees appears to weaken them, making them more prone to attacks by longhorn beetles.

Nearly 85 percent of fully grown trees that die do so because of the beetles, researchers found. And frankincense farmers are not replacing them. Highlanders brought cattle to the lowlands, and seedlings do not survive because cattle eat them and collectors burn the grasslands to make it easier to get to the trees, killing saplings in the process, said Bongers.

Bongers and his team worked in an isolated part of northwest Ethiopia near the source of the Blue Nile. They studies 13 5-acre plots, somewhere trees were tapped for frankincense and some where they remained untapped. Over a two year period, the team monitored survival, growth and seed production of more than 6,000 Boswellia trees, collecting more than 20,000 individual measurements.

They used their data to construct demographic models capable of predicting the fate of populations of the tree in the coming years. It is these data and models that show the Boswellia populations could be halved within 15 years, and 90 percent gone in 50.

Bongers told BBC News that all the populations studied are declining, not just the ones that have been tapped, suggesting that factors other than tapping are the root of the problem.

The species Bongers and his colleagues focused on for the study -- Boswellia papyrifera -- grows in African drylands. It grows in arid areas so small, harmful changes could have widespread devastating effects on the trees.

If the trees were to disappear, it would be a great loss to the local people who rely on profits made on the resin produced from the trees.

In order to ensure future rejuvenation, Bongers suggested that areas should be set aside for up to a decade so young Boswellia trees could become established. Strong and far-reaching management incentives need to be introduced if Boswellia populations — and future frankincense production — are to be preserved.

Each year, up to about 6.6 pounds of resin can be tapped from a single Boswellia tree. After about five years of tapping, management techniques suggest that the tree should be rested for a similar period in order to maximize future yields.

The small trees, which generally reach a height of no more than 16 feet, grow in steep, rocky habitats, providing cover for other plant species. The Boswellia genus is generally classified as Vulnerable as a result of habitat fragmentation and poor levels of rejuvenation, explained Bongers.

One man, Jason Eslamieh, an Iran native that now lives in Arizona, is putting in his own effort to save the trees. He grows and sells all 19 species of Boswellia, including the frankincense-producing type, at his nursery in Tempe.

Seeds from the papyrifera subspecies, which produces the frankincense, are notoriously difficult to germinate. Only a handful of one hundred plants ever grow to full size, Eslamieh said. He added that they must have undergone a population bottleneck due to over-harvesting in the past, leaving them inbred and weak. He is trying to create hybrids that are more vigorous.

His nursery,, sells more than 100,000 seeds a year as well as 1,000 papyrifera plants. A 4-inch seedling costs $55, and fully mature trees can sell for up to $1,000. The trees have proven to grow easily in Southern California, Florida and parts of Arizona.

Once the trees are about 4 years old, they can be tapped for frankincense. “A small tree is enough for personal use,” Eslamieh said.

Bongers said it is very possible that climate change is affecting these trees. He currently has a research project underway and hopes to have an answer within two years.


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