Good intentions meet complex realities: CITES listing of diverse frankincense (Boswellia species) might do more harm than good

Stephen Johnson, Sue Canney Davison, Kelly Ablard, Frans Bongers, Anthony B. Cunningham, Anjanette DeCarlo, Ben Erik Van Wyk

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debate


Frankincense gum resin is a globally traded forest product, likely generating more than $1 billion USD in value annually for its use in perfumery, medicines, and incense. It supports thousands of rural livelihoods in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, India, and several other countries, where it is harvested from Boswellia trees. Recent research indicates unsustainable practices and population declines in both heavily and minimally traded species, prompting a review by the CITES Secretariat and consideration of potential listing of the genus (or species therein) in Appendix II. We argue that each of the 24 Boswellia species faces different circumstances and challenges with respect to trade and must be treated as an individual entity rather than being lumped together as part of a homogenous multi-species entity. The trade-conservation relationship for Boswellia species is not straightforward, with both positive and negative impacts of trade apparent, and interventions must account for this. CITES as a mechanism relies heavily on the infrastructure of exporting states, some of which suffer from limited resources, severe corruption, and existing trade suspensions. These limitations make CITES listing inappropriate as a conservation and regulatory tool. Tougher standards are needed, but without aiming for simple answers, we suggest that these are better implemented through importing country regulation driving private supply chain improvements rather than through exporting country-based CITES regulations. This can avoid foreseeable unintended negative consequences for both the conservation of different Boswellia species, populations, and the livelihoods of local communities frankincense tapping has supported for thousands of years.

Original languageEnglish
Article number103207
JournalForest Policy and Economics
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2024


  • Forest governance
  • Frankincense
  • International trade
  • NTFPs
  • Supply chains

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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