Frankincense could reshape Africa

A remarkably drought-resistant species of frankincense could help restore some of Africa's lost woodlands

In dry areas in the Horn of Africa, there are frankincense trees that thrive in the extreme aridity.

These trees are harvested for the frankincense resin that they produce. It is used to make perfumes and incense, and can only be obtained from the wild trees.

For many years, frankincense trees have faced challenges that could threaten their very survival. Now a new analysis provides hope that this downward spiral could be prevented.

To get frankincense out of the tree, it first needs to be cut. This causes it to "bleed" and release resin. If a tree is cut over and over again, it can be severely damaged, as these cuts can harm the tree's growth and reproduction rate.

Currently, there is no universal regulation on how resin is harvested in order to protect the trees.

This cutting is only one of the issues facing frankincense trees.

The forests are also used for grazing cattle, and farmers burn the grass at the end of the season to help stimulate growth for the next season, says Pieter Zuidema of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

"This might increase mortality rates and prevents the seedlings growing up into trees. So we see this lack of regeneration across the many sites, both in Ethiopia and also Eritrea and Sudan."

The third major issue is deforestation, which is occurring at alarming rates. In fact, dry forests are believed to be more threatened by deforestation and degradation than wet, tropical forests.

"More attention is going to wet tropical forests, so dry ones are getting hammered harder," says Zuidema.

A new study proposes that one frankincense-producing species, Boswellia neglecta is particularly well suited to overcome some of the threats it faces.

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