Christmas rush threatens Ethiopian frankincense source

Ecologists warn that current rates of tapping frankincense are endangering the fragrant resin’s sustained production. Writing in the December issue of the Journal of Applied Ecology, Professor Frans Bongers of the Netherlands’ Wageningen University says that over-tapping Ethiopia’s Boswellia trees is resulting in them producing fewer and less viable seeds.

Frankincense, an aromatic hardened wood resin obtained by tapping tree, has been used in incense and perfumes for 2000 years. According to the Bible, frankincense was given to the baby Jesus by the three wise men at Christmas. The resin is widely in demand for worldwide Christmas celebrations, and it will be featured in thousands of Nativity plays. It is also used in many Arab communities, for weddings and Eid celebrations.

Bongers’ team hypothesized that intensive tapping is causing the trees to divert too much carbohydrate into resin, at the expense of reproductive organs, such as flowers, fruit and seeds. Working in southwestern Eritrea, they tested how many seeds intensively tapped trees produced, and their germination rates, compared with untapped trees. Said Bongers: “This study strongly suggests that there is competition between investment of carbohydrates in sexual reproductive structures and synthesis of frankincense in Boswellia papyrifera.”

“In order to control the decline in fruit and seed production, less intensive tapping procedures should be developed,” the study states. It found that six tapping points per tree are having a negative impact, and that new tapping regimes should include rest periods to allow the trees to recover.

At least five species of Boswellia are currently exploited for frankincense. In addition to those in Ethiopia and Eritrea, Boswellia woodlands are found in Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia, Yemen and Oman. Despite its economic importance, B. papyrifera is a threatened species in Eritrea where Boswellia woodlands are being destroyed for agricultural land. (Environment News Service, Dec. 13; Australian Broadcasting Corp., Dec. 18)

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