Frankincense threatened by conditions in Ethiopia

By Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY
The world may still have gold and myrrh, but it’s quite possible that frankincense could become a thing of the past, given ecological pressures on the arid lands where it grows in Ethiopia.
The storied resin, known to millions as one of the three
gifts of the Magi, the wise men who visited Jesus after his birth, is made from
gum produced by the boswellia papyrifera tree. Its “bitter perfume” is
used as incense in religious rituals in many cultures, as well as an ingredient
in perfume and Chinese traditional medicine.

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

Their paper in today’s edition of the Journal
of Applied Ecology
finds that the Ethiopian trees that produce much of
the world’s frankincense are declining so dramatically that production could be
halved over the next 15 years and the trees themselves could decline by 90% in
the next 50 years

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Frankincense has been harvested in the wild in the Middle
and the Horn of
since ancient times.

The frankincense carried by the three wise men probably
came from that area but those trees are mostly gone, says Frans Bongers, a
professor of tropical forest ecology and management at the University of
Wageningen in Holland.

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

Specialists have long said frankincense trees aren’t doing
well, but the paper is the first hard data on them, and the outlook is not

Frankincense is harvested by making cuts in the tree bark
during the dry season. A cut is made every two or three weeks, and the resin
that emerges to heal it is collected.

How much frankincense is produced worldwide isn’t clearly
known. Bongers says Europe imports about 400 tons each year, and about half of
that goes on to China for use in traditional medicine while the rest goes to
churches and perfume makers.

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Most of that comes from Ethiopia. A long-term government
push to relocate people from the highlands to the lowlands, where the trees
grow, is putting tremendous pressure on the ecosystem.

Additionally, a shift in harvesting from large,
government-controlled companies to private collectives has increased the
pressure to collect larger amounts of resin. The old contracts were for up to 40
years, Bongers says, which gave incentive to preserve the resource. The new
contracts can be as short as two years, “so they get what they can get,” he

Heavy tapping appears to weaken the trees, making them more
prone to attacks by longhorn beetles. Up to 85% of fully grown trees that die
are heavily infested with beetles, the researchers found.

No new trees are replacing them. The highlanders brought
cattle, and seedlings don’t survive to become saplings because cattle eat them
and collectors burn the grasslands to make it easier to get to the trees,
killing saplings as well, Bongers says.

An Arizona man is in a small way trying to stem this tide.
Jason Eslamieh, originally from Iran, grows and sells all 19 boswellia
species, including the frankincense-producing type, at his nursery in Tempe.

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Seeds from the papyrifera subspecies, which makes
frankincense, are notoriously difficult to germinate. Two to eight out of a
hundred grow into a plant, says Eslamieh, who authored a book on the topic. He
says they must have undergone a population bottleneck due to over-harvesting in
the past, leaving them inbred and weak. He’s 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 grow readily in Southern
, 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,” he says.

It’s possible that climate change is affecting the trees.
Bongers has a research project underway and hopes to have an answer within two

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