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ScienceShot: Future of Frankincense Not So Sweet

21 December 2011 10:50 am
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Maros Markovic/iStockphoto; (inset) Fotosearch

The mythical gifts of the Magi—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—represented the rarest and most precious tributes one could give a king. Unfortunately, frankincense, a sweet-scented resin from the desert tree Boswellia, has become even rarer and will continue to do so, researchers report today in the Journal of Applied Ecology. Boswellia trees have had trouble reproducing in recent years, and ecologists believed that they were weakened when traders tapped them for resin. Working in Ethiopia over a period of 2 years, the researchers monitored 12 copses of B. papyrifera: six that had been tapped and six that had not. They found that the tapped trees were able to reproduce as well as the untapped, ruling out human interference as the major killer. Instead, the biggest threats seemed to be grazing livestock, fires, and the longhorn beetle, which burrows into trees' bark, kills them, and leaves them as ready fuel for forest fires. If these problems aren't remedied soon, the team's models suggest that frankincense production could drop by 50% in the next 15 years: a tough blow to the economies of Ethiopia and Eritrea who export it.

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