Frankincense trees—of biblical lore—are being tapped out for essential oils
The fragrant resin gifted to the newborn Jesus may be at risk of disappearing.
On a starlit night long ago, as the story goes, three wise men brought gifts to baby Jesus in a stable. One was gold, the others frankincense and myrrh. Frankincense, like myrrh, was highly prized—thought to be worth its weight in gold—but it wouldn’t have been hard to find: Trees that yield the fragrant resin were widespread in the lands of the Bible and beyond.
Two millennia later, Anjanette DeCarlo and a team of Somalians spent a sweltering day hiking to what they thought was a virgin stand of frankincense-producing trees in the mountains near Yubbe, a town in Somaliland. But, DeCarlo says, when they arrived, after traveling more than four hours by car and another four hours on foot, “we were absolutely in shock.”
DeCarlo, an ecologist and director of a project called Save Frankincense, based in Somaliland—a self-governing region northwest of Somalia that isn’t recognized by foreign governments—hadn’t expected to find tree after tree whose trunks, from top to bottom, were marred by cuts.
Frankincense, woodsy and sweetly aromatic, is one of the oldest commercial commodities, spanning more than 5,000 years. Today, thousands of tons of it are traded every year to be used by Catholic priests as incense in thuribles and by makers of perfumes, natural medicines, and essential oils that can be inhaled or applied to the skin for their purported health benefits.
Most frankincense comes from about five species of Boswellia trees, found in North Africa and India, but also in Oman, Yemen, and western Africa. The trees look gnarled and knotty, like a desert bonsai. To collect frankincense, harvesters make incisions into the trunks and scrape out the oozing sap, which hardens into frankincense resin.
According to DeCarlo, the trees should be cut no more than 12 times a year to keep them healthy. But in that mountain forest in Somaliland, she counted as many as 120 incisions in a single tree. The resin that leaks out of the cuts acts like a scab, protecting the wound so it can heal. It’s the same with our bodies, she says. If you get cut once, “you’re OK, right? You put a band-aid on it….But if you get cut, you get cut, you get cut, and you’re cut…well, you’re going to be very, very open to infection now. Your immune system is going to take a big hit trying to save you, and your immunity’s going to crash.” She adds, “It is the exact same thing with a frankincense tree.”
During the past decade or so, the market for essential oils—worth more than $7 billion in 2018 and expected to double in value by 2026—has boomed, putting greater pressure on frankincense trees. Aromatherapy used to be a “healers’ niche,” says Tim Valentiner, vice president of global strategic sourcing for the essential oil company doTERRA, but now it’s more mainstream. He says the company, which was founded in 2008, doubled in size year-on-year at the beginning. (DoTERRA funds much of DeCarlo’s research into sustainable frankincense harvesting.)
Just how badly Boswellia trees are doing is largely unknown—population studies are difficult in the remote, war-torn areas where these species often grow. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which evaluates the conservation status of plants and animals, has assessed one of the primary frankincense species, Boswellia sacra, as near threatened. But that was back in 1998.
Frankincense trees aren’t covered under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the global treaty that regulates cross-border trade in plants and animals, but experts have argued that Boswellia species meet the criteria for protection.
National laws vary widely. In Somaliland, for example, it’s illegal under xeer—traditional law—to overharvest trees. Some of Oman’s frankincense trees are located in a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are protected by law. In other countries, however, few or no laws cover frankincense, Bongers says.
Even where laws exist, Valentiner says, they may not amount to much because remoteness of frankincense trees makes policing them impossible. “This is the ends of the Earth,” he says. “These are extremely rural and rugged areas to access.”
First signs of trouble
In a study in 2006, Frans Bongers, an ecologist at Wageningen University & Research, in the Netherlands, sounded early warning. His study showed that by the late 1990s, Boswellia papyrifera trees in Eritrea were becoming increasingly hard to find. This summer, Bongers co-authored a new paper predicting a 50-percent reduction in Boswellia papyrifera within the next two decades. This species—found mainly in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Sudan—accounts for about two-thirds of global frankincense production.
His team discovered that the trees aren’t regenerating: In more than half the populations they assessed, they didn’t find a single young tree. The culprits are cattle grazing on saplings, uncontrolled fires, and overtapping—cutting a tree too many times. “There’s a very high mortality rate in the old trees,” he says, which leads to weaker trees that produce fewer and lower-quality seeds.
Even though the study focuses on one species, the paper warns that all Boswellia species are threatened by habitat loss and overexploitation. Boswellia are found almost exclusively in regions with a harsh, arid climate that are plagued by conflict and poverty, and selling the resin may be the only source of income for many people in these areas, leading to overtapping, Bongers says. “Local people want to make a living. When I talk to people, they think that there is no problem because the trees are there, and if they tap, they get it, so who cares? It’s about short-term—taking care of your family.”
For the villager trying to scrape out a living from frankincense trees, the “biggest problem,” according to Ahmed Dhunkaal, a harvester and researcher in Somaliland, is the middlemen who buy resin and broker it to big companies. These traders often exploit vulnerable harvesters. They claim they’re taking the frankincense on loan but then never pay for it, leaving families impoverished. “People are angry,” Dhunkaal says.
Osman Degelleh, the former director general and current development advisor to Somaliland’s Ministry of Trade, says the previous government planned to create a body dedicated to managing frankincense and resins, but that never materialized. He says the key is to foster small-scale frankincense suppliers who harvest trees sustainably and support their communities.
“We have big companies who are like sharks,” Degelleh says. Wealth isn’t evenly distributed across the supply chain of harvesters, middlemen, and sellers. “The onus is on the government to do something about that.” While the big companies are enormously wealthy, he says, harvesters “are earning peanuts.”
Gerben Boersma, CEO of Three Kings Incense, a Holland-based supplier of incense to Catholic churches around the world, says frankincense prices have been going up in recent years even as the quality of the resin has gone down. Makers of frankincense-based products are compensating for the scarcity by mixing in high-quality essential oils and other things, such as sandalwood and flower blossoms.
The long-term solution to shortages, Boersma says, is to revert to old, more sustainable ways of harvesting frankincense. “When you grow a tree, I think it takes 25 years before it starts supplying its first incense. So you have to find some crazy person who’s willing to spend all of that time and have that patience to work like that. And that’s getting more and more difficult.”
Bongers helped develop guidelines for how to tap trees sustainably, such as by allowing them a full recovery year for every few years of tapping. He also recommends fencing and firebreaks to protect forests from wildfires and cows that overgraze saplings. He acknowledges that encouraging people in difficult circumstances to implement such measures is challenging. “I’m not sure that these guidelines are very well studied, let’s put it that way,” he says.
Because enforcement is so difficult in the remote, resource-poor areas where frankincense grows, Bongers believes that consumer demand for responsibly sourced products will spur change for the good of frankincense forests.
Some companies—including doTERRA, which sells 36 products containing frankincense, and the cosmetics company Lush, which sells 16—cater to more informed customers. They’re actively advertising that their frankincense is ethically sourced. (National Geographic has not independently verified company practices and supply chains.)
So much effort goes into making essential oils, says Kevin Wilson, director of public relations for doTERRA, that consumers have to understand that pure, sustainably sourced frankincense won’t come cheap. “If a bottle of frankincense is selling for $9 or $10 at a local grocery store, they can probably be sure that may not be the pure product,” he says. DoTERRA’s 15-milliliter bottles (imagine a bottle one twenty-fourth the size of a 12-ounce soda can) sell for about $90.
For Gabbi Loedolff, African hub coordinator for Lush’s buying team, selecting suppliers who care about sustainability largely revolves around growing new trees. “We’re really in this mindset of moving toward regeneration, so how can you actually create a surplus….And that’s certainly what we’re working on trying to figure out for frankincense.” Loedolff says she and other company representatives make a point of traveling to source forests to see how the harvesting is done, and they select suppliers who show commitment to sustainability.
Some researchers and harvesters, including DeCarlo and Dhunkaal, say that growing frankincense trees commercially on plantations would help, rather than relying exclusively on wild trees.
Dhunkaal has established a nursery of Boswellia carterii in Somaliland. Using his own money and donations from doTERRA and Lush, he built a greenhouse, collects clippings from wild trees, plants the clippings in his nursery, and pays men to water the saplings by hand. “Propagation is the best solution,” he says. He also provides training to frankincense harvesters to help discourage overcutting of trees in the wild.
If nothing changes, DeCarlo says, consumers have to ask themselves: Are we willing to lose frankincense in a few generations? “We’ve loved frankincense for a long time,” she says. "What I don’t want to see is that we love these trees to death.”