An initial survey in October 2016, followed by subsequent field analyses in 2017 and 2018, revealed that the frankincense trees in certain areas of the growing region, including parts of the Cal Madow, are in rapid decline due to a wave of factors. The demand for frankincense has risen dramatically in the last 5 years, and consequently the price has gone from around $1/kilo to $6/kilo of good resin. This increase in price, along with an increasing population, has kicked off a scramble to obtain resin. Consequently, we’ve observed the following issues:
The majority of frankincense trees we saw were cut far too much for them to be healthy. Traditional knowledge, according to clan elders and chiefs we interviewed, indicates that the trees should be cut no more than 6-12 times, depending on the size of the tree. Studies from Ethiopia on the closely related tree Boswellia papyrifera indicate that trees should not experience more than 9 cuts (Lemenih and Kassa 2011; Eschete et al. 2012) We observed trees with up to 120 cuts at a time, and routinely observed trees with over 50 cuts. This level of cutting significantly weakens the tree and will eventually kill them.
High Levels in the Region
Traditionally, trees are harvested for only 6 months out of the year and allowed to rest by following a cycle of 2 years of tapping, 1 year of rest. Today, the trees are not rested but are harvested every year. Harvesting must stop when the rainy season starts, as the rain washes away the resin, but if the rains do not come, as they have not in the past few years, the harvesters begin tapping the tree again. This double cycle further stresses the trees.
In an effort to obtain more resin, some harvesters have also begun cutting trees that are too young. Trees generally do not start being harvested until they are around 40 years. Harvesting immature trees presumably stunts their growth and limits their ability to grow into full productive trees.
Harvesting of Immature Trees
Stripping of the Bark
We observed a number of trees that had been completely stripped of their bark. The stripped bark is sold to Ethiopia for low-grade incense. While this practice might temporarily increase resin production as the tree struggles to defend itself, bark stripping will quickly kill the tree.
Pests and Environmental Factors
Many trees are killed by a combination of natural factors as well. Pests, locally called xare, are a significant source of mortality. These pests are likely wood-boring beetles, which burrow into and kill the trees. Limited water due to drought and changing climate also weakens the tree and limits its ability to produce resin to defend itself. Additionally, trees are often blown over and killed during intense wind storms. Overharvesting also weakens the trees, making them more susceptible to mortality by natural factors.
Stripped B. Carterii
HIGH MORTALITY AND DECLINE OF FORESTS
During our surveys we saw hundreds of dead and dying trees in a number of locations. In just one location we were told that the village had seen a 75% decline in resin production. In another we were told that the harvesters were losing 100-200 trees per year in an area of only 10 square kilometers. Given the low densities at which the trees grow, this is a highly significant level of death. Though we have not yet surveyed the entire growing region, these findings are troubling. If the frankincense forests die, both a unique ecosystem and an African cultural legacy will be lost.
Decline of Frankincense
Dead B. Carterii