Frankincense Fears Largely Unfounded

Mar 26, 07:28 PM

by Katharine Koeppen, RA

Over the past year or so, the list serve and social media scene has been periodically lighting up in a mad flurry of posts about the pending extinction of frankincense (Boswellia sp.). The reality: there are over 25 different species of frankincense trees, and only one commonly harvested for its aromatic resin is considered to be at high risk.

The primary species used for resin collection are Boswellia carterii, Boswellia sacra, Boswellia frereana, Boswellia serrata, Boswellia thurifera and Boswellia papyrifera. Most of these are found wild in single species or mixed stands over a fairly small geographic area: Ethiopia, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman. Boswellia serrata, probably the least desirable species in terms of its value to aromatherapists, is under cultivation in western and central India. Some cultivated frankincense also exists in Oman, long known as the world center of frankincense trade.

The somewhat misguided extinction panic began as the result of just one article published in a scientific journal. The article looked at a study done on a single species, Boswellia papyrifera, in a single area, northern Ethiopia. It predicted a 50% decline in B. papyrifera population over the next 15 years, based on a combination of fire, overgrazing and beetle infestation. No predicted population decline in this area of Ethiopia was extrapolated to occur due to overharvesting, which was a concern erroneously voiced in many aromatherapy social media groups.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes a Red List of Threatened Species, and lists B. sacra as "lower risk/near threatened," which is not the same as "endangered" (and their definition of of "lower risk" is somewhat nebulous). IUCN notes that regeneration of this tree is poor, but admits that their information requires updating. They do not include B. papyrifera on the Red List at all.

Add into the mix the fact that frankincense trees grow in a part of the world that is notoriously subject to major political instability and minor tribal skirmishes. Industry insiders say that much of the Arabian peninsula production of frankincense essential oil has slowed not because of any endangered trees, but because the Saudi government is denying border passage to Somali tribesmen who have traditionally wild-harvested resin for hundreds of years.

The overall situation for frankincense is by no means dire, but it does bear watching over the next few decades. I have faith in these trees; they possess hardy souls. They have survived for thousands of years in a barren, inhospitable desert climate, often growing out of solid rock cliffs. That's perserverance.

References

Groenendijk et al. "Limitations to sustainable frankincense production: blocked regeneration, high adult mortality and declining populations." Journal of Applied Ecology Vol. 49:1 (20 December 2011). Retrieved 26 March 2013 from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.

International Union for Conservation of Nature. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Boswellia sacra. 1998. Retrieved 26 March 2013 from http://www.iucnredlist.org.

Sellar, Wanda and Watt, Martin. Frankincense & Myrrh. C. W. Daniel Company: Essex, England. 1996.

 

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