Gold, Myrrh, and Frankincense (?): How One Gift May No Longer be Available

It has been noted in literature since the days of the Bible, but the pungent plant product known as frankincense has since seen better days.  In a recent report published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, Frans Bongers describes his six years of research and what he has found while studying boswellia (the species of tree that secretes the sap from which frankincense is derived).   

What he found was that in areas in the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula, where the trees most commonly grow, the number of trees is depleting at an incredibly fast rate. Bongers focused on Ethiopia, where the majority of frankincense is grown and exported, and found that numbers have dropped so steeply that the production of frankincense is going to be cut in half within the next 15 years—currently, boswellia trees are dying off at around 7 percent each year.  The next 50 years, if the decline continues at this consistent of a pace, will only see 10 percent of the boswellia trees that are alive now.  And with a loss like that, the “bitter perfume” may be left to the record books.

To get a better idea of how this plant is in danger, it should first be known that to get the extremely marketable scent and oil from within the plant, a process first begins by “tapping” at the bark of the tree.  This creates openings in the bark through which the sap is able to seep through, harden, and be collected by harvesters.  It is then bought and sold throughout Europe, the Middle East, and China where it is commonly used in perfumes and traditional medicines.  Its ability to soar in the marketplace has made it an easy target for over-farming in many areas of Ethiopia.

Past and present over-harvesting has made the trees weak and much more susceptible to attacks by insects; it is estimated that up to 85% of the fully grown boswellia trees that die are largely full of longhorn beetles. Additionally, government pressure to push residents out of the Ethiopian highlands and into the lowlands has given additional pressure to the boswellia growth areas that had not had such stress before. Cattle that graze on these areas, as well, prohibit the growth of new saplings to trees by eating them before they have time enough to do so. Smaller privately operated harvests are being favored by the government over the former more “government-controlled” operations.  This move, as Bongers mentions has given way to a type of “get what they can get” mentality. 

Getting enough conservational support for these trees has presented people, like Bongers, with a paradox.  In order to ensure that a sustainable number of boswellia trees be reached, large areas of growth need to be set aside and not utilized by harvesters, farmers, or cattle.  Yet, for those in the country struggling simply to survive and provide for themselves and their families, that would mean putting their livelihood/lives on hold and in great risk. 

Bongers explains that making a case for both sides would be equally valid and equally important: “People say, ‘Well, yes, we do understand, but at the same time we have to survive.’”  One way to support conservation efforts would be to get international governmental bodies involved to help formulate a plan that would not compromise either locals or plant species, but rather look to find an acceptable and responsible course of action. To read and sign that petition, click here.

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