Frankincense is perhaps best known due to its associations with Christmas, but researchers warn that production of the fragrant resin could halve over the next 15 years due to environmental hazards that threaten the growth of the trees the prized incense is extracted from.
Frankincense is a resin tapped from varieties of the Boswellia tree. The small trees, found in rocky habitats in regions like North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, can be tapped for up to 3kg of resin each over a period of about 5 years before it is recommended that they be rested for around another 5 years — this is in order to try and maximize future yields.
Aware of anecdotal evidence suggesting the number of trees had been in decline for a while, researchers have now studied 13 two-hectare plots, monitoring more than 6,000 trees and collecting more than 20,000 measurements.
This research, published in the most recent edition of Journal of Applied Ecology, found that due to a bottleneck phenomena in regeneration and a high mortality rate among adult trees because of environmental hazards like fire, there is a rapid and alarming decline in the number of Boswellia that in turn could spell trouble for Frankincense production.
“Current management of Boswellia populations is clearly unsustainable,” Prof Bongers warned.
“Our models show that within 50 years, populations of Boswellia will be decimated, and the declining populations mean frankincense production is doomed. This is a rather alarming message for the incense industry and conservation organisations.”
He added that tapping the trees for the valued resin was unlikely to be the main cause of the decline. Instead, there were a number of other things affecting the long-term future of the trees.
“The number of fires and intensity of grazing in our study area has increased over recent decades as a result of a large increase in the number of cattle, and this could be why seedlings fail to grow into saplings. At the same time, a large proportion of trees we studied died after being attacked by the long-horn beetle,” Prof Bongers observed.
The resin, said to be one of the three gifts of the Magi who, according to the Christmas story, visited Jesus after his birth, is used as a “bitter perfume” or incense in religious rituals and as an ingredient in some Chinese medicines.
It is estimated that Europe imports up to 400 tons of frankincense each year.