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Famous frankincense forest is in serious danger

High in the rugged Cal Madow Mountains located northeast of Somalia reside sacred trees that are native to this land called Boswellia sacra. These Somaliland mountains are the site of a centuries-old tradition of frankincense harvesting that is becoming overexploited, and threatening what remains of the forest.

The Boswellia trees are harvested for frankincense, and are being over-tapped to meet the high demand for resin. Frankincense is a major source of revenue for Somaliland, especially now that the demand for essential oils has skyrocketed.

Anjanette DeCarlo is an ecologist and director of an environmental group called Conserve Cal Madow. He explains that over the last six years, prices for raw frankincense have jumped from $1 per kilogram to as much as $7 per kilogram.

Frankincense is a fragrant resin that has been traded for over 5000 years. It can be dated back to ancient Egypt when it was used in medicine, perfume, and burned in religious ceremonies.

Frankincense is also referenced in the Old Testament as one of the gifts brought to baby Jesus by the Three Kings. Currently, the resin is referred to as the “King of essential oils,” and is marketed as both a health and beauty product.

The high demand of frankincense has led to the overharvesting of the Boswellia trees. The tree bark is cut, or stripped, to obtain its milky sap. The tapping of the trees was once seasonal but is now happening year-round, resulting in a serious threat to the survival of the wild forest.

“The death rate of the adult trees is alarming,” DeCarlo said. “There is potential for regeneration, but it takes about 40 years or so for these trees to become viable for tapping if it’s done right.”

The tradition of gathering raw frankincense from Boswellia trees in the Cad Mountains has been handed down from father to son for many centuries. There are dangerous challenges for these men including rough terrain, venomous snakes, and jagged cliffs as high as over 8000 feet.

Credit: author Chrissy Sexton

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