Researchers studying the Boswellia papyrifera tree, from which the resin used in incense and perfumes comes, found that as many as 7 percent of the trees in Ethiopia are dying each year with low viability of seeds becoming sapling trees.
USA Today reports the Dutch and Ethiopian researchers as saying if this rate continues, the tree population could be halved in 15 years and down 90 percent by 2050.
USA Today reports Frans Bongers, a professor of tropical forest ecology and management at the University of Wageningen in Holland, as saying that while some of the trees still exist in the Middle East and Somalia many are gone and Ethiopia is the main producer.
"Current management of Boswellia populations is clearly unsustainable," Bongers said to Live Science. "Our models show that within 50 years, populations of Boswellia will be decimated, and the declining populations mean frankincense production is doomed. This is a rather alarming message for the incense industry and conservation organizations."
The research, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, attributes the decline not to over-harvesting but fire, beetles and grazing. USA Today reports that the Ethiopian government has pushed some of the population to move into areas where the trees subsequently grow. It also notes that private companies now harvest the trees -- before companies were government-controlled -- which has resulted in more tree tapping. USA Today states that tapping trees heavily could weaken them and make them more susceptible to beetle infestation.