Gold is probably fine, and we’re not sure about myrrh, but frankincense appears to in trouble, a new study suggests.
The famed resin, known to hundreds of millions as one of the three gifts of the Magi who visited Jesus after his birth, is in decline.
Frankincense, which is made from gum produced by the boswellia papyrifera tree, is still used today in religious rituals in many cultures. It’s also an ingredient in perfume and Chinese traditional medicine and has been harvested in the wild in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa since ancient times.
People harvest the sap by gouging the bark of wild trees; they then dry it into golden yellow grains, which can be burned or blended into other fragrances, Science magazine reported.
According to the new research, not only is the tree in trouble today, scientists predict a 50% decline in frankincense harvests over the next 20 years in countries such as Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea.
Threats include grazing by livestock such as cattle, goats and camels, along with insect outbreaks and burning from human-set brush fires, the study said. Overharvesting is also a major cause of the decline.
With older trees dying fast and no young ones coming up to replace them, the frankincense woodlands will soon disappear, experts said.
“With even the better protected woodlands not regenerating, the older trees in the population dying, and the remaining adults being too heavily tapped, the future of these woodlands and their frankincense production look grim,” said study lead author Frans Bongers of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.
The study also warned that other frankincense species growing in Oman, Yemen, India, Somalia and Kenya are undergoing similar threats.
What can be done?
“Populations can be restored by establishing cattle exclosures and fire-breaks, and by planting trees and tapping trees more carefully,” the study said.
“Concerted conservation and restoration efforts are urgently needed to secure the long-term availability of this iconic product.”
The study was published in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature Sustainability.
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, USA TODAY