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Trees In Trouble: Grim Future For Frankincense

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The original Christmas presents were gold, frankincense and myrrh. That's what wise men brought to the baby Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Frankincense is still used today — for perfumes, incense and traditional medicines — but a new study suggests that its future looks grim.

The trees that produce this fragrant resin are in serious trouble, says Frans Bongers, a forestry expert at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He says production of frankincense could be cut in half in just 15 years. And in the next 50 years, tree numbers could decline by 90 percent, according to his new study published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Frankincense comes from various species of Boswellia, a tree that mainly grows in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. People make cuts in the bark and let the tree sap ooze out. After it hardens into yellowish lumps, they come back to collect it, and then make more cuts. "And so they come back every two weeks for the whole dry season, and that's about nine months," Bongers explains.

He and colleagues monitored forests in Ethiopia with thousands of frankincense trees for about two years, comparing plots where trees were tapped with plots where trees were left alone.

They found that the forests were declining, regardless of whether they were tapped for frankincense or not. In general, they found big, old trees that were dying at an alarming rate, possibly because of insect attack.

Meanwhile, they found a dearth of younger trees. Bongers said they mainly saw just tiny seedlings in the grass. "They do not grow into a sapling, and they do not grow into a new tree," says Bongers.

He says that's because they burn up in fires set by farmers or are eaten by grazing cattle.

The only hope of preserving frankincense is to set aside large areas, to let young trees get established, says Bongers. But that's a hard case to make when local people are struggling to make a living.

"People say, 'Well, yes, we do understand, but at the same time we have to survive,' " he says. "So I'm realistic on this, I think."

Already, in some countries, like Yemen and Oman, says Bongers, the frankincense is almost gone.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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