They journeyed from the East to pay homage to the boy king bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. But they would struggle to complete the feat today. Times for wise men have never been tougher. Gold prices are soaring on commodity markets, myrrh crops have been hit by drought – and now frankincense could soon be no more.
Solid frankincense resin can be sold at up to £37.33 per kilo, according to the International Centre for Research in Dry Areas. Myrrh is roughly twice as expensive, but prices are volatile – something that can also be said for the Wise Men's third gift. Four days before Christmas, an ounce of gold costs £1,029.20 on the international market – up by nearly 20 per cent this year.
But the worst news for biblical gift-buyers came this week, from Dutch ecologists studying populations of Boswellia in Ethiopia, who warned that numbers of the frankincense-producing tree could halve in the next 15 years and eventually cease altogether if factors such as fire, grazing and insect attack go unchecked.
An extinction of Boswellia would put an end to a millennia-old trade in the aromatic resin, which peaked under the Roman Empire and still provides materials for the perfume and aromatherapy industries today. Frankincense is used by major cosmetic firms such as the Body Shop and Ren, which sells Frankincense Revitalising Night Cream at £32 for a 50ml bottle.
Harvests of myrrh, another fragrant resin which comes from another species of desert tree, have also suffered from the effects of long-term drought. About 2,000 tons of frankincense is produced each year.
Researchers gathered population and seed production data on various species of Boswellia over two years. Their study of 13 two-hectare plots in Ethiopia, published The British Ecological Society's Journal of Applied Ecology, revealed its rapid decline. However, it is not the cosmetics industry, but cows and insects that are the mostly likely cause of the decline, the study said.
"Frankincense extraction is unlikely to be the main cause of population decline, which is likely to be caused by burning, grazing and attacks by the long-horn beetle," said Dr Frans Bongers, of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. "The number of fires and intensity of grazing in our study area has increased over recent decades as a result of a large increase in the number of cattle, and this could be why seedlings fail to grow into saplings."
"Our models show that within 50 years populations of Boswellia will be decimated, and the declining populations mean the frankincense population is doomed."
Bearing gifts... but for how long?
Gold Prices have soared as the economic crisis rumbles on. The current price is £1,029.20 an ounce.
Frankincense The tree which makes the resin faces extinction due to overgrazing and insect attacks.
Myrrh Drought may have had an impact on the growth of the thorny tree from which the resin comes.