Frankincensored: How a Venerable Christmas Gift Could Be Headed for Extinction

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In the days before Amazon Prime, your Christmas gift-giving options were somewhat more limited. So it that the three wise men in the Biblical account brought local gifts to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem: gold, frankincense and myrhh, each a proper offering for a king—if, perhaps, not all that useful for an infant. (Maybe someone could have bought a baby walker?)

But at least one of those Biblical gifts may be on the way out. According to ecologists from the Netherlands and Ethiopia, the Boswellia tree—which produces the perfume frankincense—is on a path to extinction, thanks to fire, insect attacks and grazing. The trees—which grow in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula, hence the connection the Nativity story—are declining so rapidly that production of the frankincense resin could fall by half over the next 15 years, and Boswellia tree numbers could drop by 90% over the next half-century.

Here’s Frans Bongers of Wageningen University, a lead author on the paper, which was published in the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Applied Ecology:

Current management of Boswellia populations is clearly unsustainable. 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.

Working in a village in northwest Ethiopia, the research team studied 13 two-hectare plots—some where trees were tapped for frankincense and some where they were left untouched. They monitored more than 6,000 Boswellia trees for two years, then used that data to construct models to predict what would happen to the species in the future. Boswellia trees that had been harvested for frankincense suffered, but so did trees that hadn’t been harvested for the incense. (The perfume has been traded internationally for thousands of years and is still used today in some churches.)

The problem isn’t the frankincense harvesting itself—rather, the researchers believe the main cause of the decline is likely burning for agriculture, grazing and attacks by the long-horn beetle, which lays eggs under the tree’s bark. Unless local authorities help farmers better manage the Boswellia trees—which may include putting large areas of the trees off-limits for years to allow the numbers to rebound—one of the Magi is going to have to find a new gift. Can I suggest an iPad 2?