By Karen Graham

On a starry night, long ago, three wise men brought gifts to the baby Jesus in a stable. One was gold, the others frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense, like myrrh, was highly prized for its medicinal properties. Today, the aromatic tree is in peril.

Two millennia ago, frankincense was not hard to find. The natural populations of Boswellia trees and shrubs were found throughout the lands of the Bible and beyond. However, the trees are now in peril, according to a recent study in the online journal, Nature Sustainability by leading frankincense researcher Frans Bongers.

Eight years ago, Anjanette DeCarlo and a team of Somalians spent a sweltering day – riding four hours in a car and then hiking an additional four hours to what was supposed to be a stand of frankincense-producing trees in the mountains near Yubbe, a town in Somaliland.

This place is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, listed as Land of Frankincense.

Giovanni Boccardi (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO)

DeCarlo is an ecologist and director of a project called Save Frankincense, based in Somaliland—a self-governing region northwest of Somalia. DeCarlo says that when they reached the location, “we were absolutely in shock,” reports National Geographic Magazine.

They found the trees alright, but “tree after tree – the trunks, from top to bottom, were marred by cuts.”

Frankincense is woodsy and sweetly aromatic. Thousands of tons of frankincense are traded every year to be used in religious ceremonies as incense in thuribles and by makers of perfumes, natural medicines, and essential oils. Today, most of the frankincense comes from five species of Boswellia trees found in North Africa and India, but also in Oman, Yemen, and western Africa.

Frankincense resin

Lupus in Saxonia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

To collect the frankincense, harvesters make cuts in the trunks of the trees and scrape out the oozing sap, which hardens into frankincense resin. DeCarlo says the trees should not be cut more than 12 times a year, but in the mountain forest in Somaliland, she counted as many as 120 incisions in a single tree.

“We loved frankincense for 5,000 years,” Decarlo said, according to Christianity Today. “With the growing world population and a real desire to use natural products and natural medications that are effective, we love it so much that we might love it to death.”

The market for essential oils is killing the Boswellia trees

The essential oils market was worth more than $7 billion in 2018 and is expected to double in value by 2026. In 1998, the primary frankincense species, Boswellia sacra, was listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which evaluates the conservation status of plants and animals, as “near threatened.”

Boswellia sacra: Resin oozing from the bark

Mauro Raffaelli (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The frankincense trees are not covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the global treaty that regulates cross-border trade in plants and animals, but experts have argued that Boswellia species meet the criteria for protection.

Then too, national laws on harvesting the trees vary greatly, and in some cases, are difficult to enforce. Oman’s frankincense trees are located in a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are protected by law. but in other countries, the trees are not so lucky.

Bongers, in this latest study, notes that “in doing inventories of 23 populations consisting of 21,786 trees, growth-ring data from 202 trees and demographic models on the basis of 7,246 trees, we find that over 75 percent of studied populations lack small trees – while natural regeneration has been absent for decades.”

The study projects that frankincense production will be cut in half in 20 years. This is primarily due to increased human population pressure on Boswellia woodlands through cattle grazing, frequent burns, and reckless tapping. Basically, the study says that “concerted conservation and restoration efforts are urgently needed to secure the long-term availability of this iconic product.”

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