Sandalwood: India

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Additional information may please be sent as messages to the Facebook
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Red Sanders

As in 2022

U Sudhakar Reddy and Rajesh Sharma, January 18, 2022: The Times of India

The potential and the problem, Red Sanders
From: U Sudhakar Reddy and Rajesh Sharma, January 18, 2022: The Times of India
Red sandalwood has long been in great demand for acoustic instruments like this lute dating from the Tang dynasty (Pic credit- Shôsô-In Treasure House, Britannica)
From: U Sudhakar Reddy and Rajesh Sharma, January 18, 2022: The Times of India

How many trees can claim to inspire a blockbuster in a film-mad country like India? The Red Sanders, a type of sandalwood tree that is native and endemic to India, plays a starring role in the recently released potboiler Pushpa: The Rise, because director Sukumar was inspired by the magnitude of the illegal market for this rare tree.

“We got to know that the red sanders smuggling market was around a whopping Rs 2 lakh crore and we also realised that these trees grow only in the Chittoor belt of Andhra Pradesh,” he told the media in December, soon after the film’s release.

Although it has no aroma like the regular sandalwood tree, the heartwood of this plant is heavily impregnated with a natural red dye called ‘santalin’, for which it is valued and considered among the finest luxury woods globally.

In fact, the sheer scale of logging has dragged the Red Sanders — also known as Raktha Chandan and Yerra Chandan locally and Pterocarpus Santalinus formally — back into the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) 2021 Red List. It is also the only species of Pterocarpus that has been listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Here are some more fascinating facts about the Red Sanders, a tree so precious that it even finds mention in the Bible — the Temple of Solomon is believed to have been built using this wood:

The Pride of the Eastern Ghats

The Red Sanders has a restricted geographic range in the Eastern Ghats where the species is endemic to a distinct tract of forest in the Rayalaseema region of Andhra Pradesh. The species is estimated to have an extent of occurrence of up to 20,000 sq km and an area of occupancy of just over 1,000 sq km.

It is estimated that about 15.5 lakh harvestable trees may be found in the Red Sanders bearing forests, of which 1.6 lakh hectares (1,600 sq km) comes under the Protected Area Network of Andhra Pradesh. It is roughly estimated that about 9 lakh trees are in the reserve forest areas outside the protected areas.

At a forest division level in the state, the species is a dominant tree in Kadapa (Palakonda and Seshachalam hill range), Rajampet and Proddatur divisions, but is less common in Tirupati, Chittoor East and Nellore, and considered sporadic in Giddalur and Nandyal divisions.

The species is also cultivated in Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and West Bengal within India, as well as in Sri Lanka and China.

Nicknamed “red gold”

Facing severe threats of exploitation and poor regeneration, Red Sanders is a pretty rare wood, which makes it very expensive. The current market value per tonne of this timber is between Rs 80 lakh and Rs 1 crore, but can even go up to Rs 2 crore.

The Jawadi and Malyali tribes residing in the Thiruvannamalai and Vellore districts of Tamil Nadu, who are traditional hunters and woodcutters, depend heavily on the smuggling of timber. While these illegal woodcutters only earn Rs 2,000 per day for cutting a tree, the price goes up steadily at each subsequent stage of smuggling till it reaches foreign shores.

The supply-side problem

The over-harvest of the Red Sanders — driven by high demand for its attractive heartwood and the high-value products made from it, ranging from furniture to musical instruments — has left its population structure skewed.

According to the IUCN, trees of harvestable size and maturity are scarce and make up less than 5% of the trees remaining in the wild. It is suspected that over the last three generations, the species has experienced a population decline of 50-80%.

The fact that this species takes several decades to mature is another factor. While the saplings reach 8-10 mt in 3-4 years, growth slows after that. It reportedly takes at least 20-25 years for the tree’s beautiful, deep red wood to be of use and 60-100 years for its girth to reach a harvestable girth of at least 70 cm. Moreover, studies conducted by Andhra Pradesh Forest Department in Rajampet indicate that only 30% heartwood content can be expected from total harvestable stem volume.

Forest fires also pose a significant threat to the Red Sandalwood trees. According to the Institute of Forest Genetics and Tree Breeding (IFGTB), the natural Red Sanders areas are highly prone to summer fires but the thick dry grasses and difficult terrains make it difficult to control such disasters. A little over a thousand forest fires are reported every year in Andhra Pradesh.

Due to all these factors, the species has been on the IUCN’s Red List — the most authoritative guide to the status of the globe’s biological diversity — since 1997, barring a brief window in 2018 when it had managed to move up into the near-threatened list.

Never-ending demand

While supply is so restricted, the market demand for this timber is about 1,000 metric tonnes per year, according to forest department data. The world’s age-old craze for the reddish-coloured consumer products made from Red Sanders is not the only thing driving up demand for the timber.

“The musical instruments [like the three-stringed Shamisen] and other objects made out of this wood have been considered as an essential dowry given in a traditional Japanese wedding,” reads a 2016 research paper titled “Red Sanders in Rayalaseema Region of Andhra Pradesh: Importance to Commercial & Medicinal Value”. The paper adds that the prized wood has historically been used to make furniture in China — especially for the imperial households — since the 10th century.

The tree is also prized due to the presence of santalin, which has pharmaceutical and industrial uses such as dyeing and tanning. The red heartwood – which turns dark brown on being exposed to air — can be powdered to produce a treatment for diabetes and is also used to alleviate swelling and pain, reduce bleeding and tackle skin concerns. The species not only finds mention in Ayurveda, but is also used to make immunity medicine in China.

India’s most smuggled wood

The demand-supply imbalance has fuelled the massive illegal trade in Red Sanders, all the more since its export from India is severely restricted. In 2021 alone, 117 smuggling cases were registered and close to 51 tonnes of Red Sanders logs worth Rs 508 crore were seized by the authorities.

It is the highest-priced wood currently smuggled out of the country through air cargo, seaport and land routes and involves local, national and international players. And it's all made possible by a nexus of a few forest officials and the police along with some customs and port officials.

Although cultivation of Red Sanders is now being encouraged by the state forest departments in India, the current scale of cultivation cannot currently meet international demand. Red Sanders found in the wild in the Seshachalam forest also boast better quality of grains and heartwood than the cultivated species.

Hence, it is feared that the species will remain threatened by illegal logging in the near future. While the wavy-grained wood has a huge demand in the international market, China and Japan are the biggest end markets. Smuggling routes are via Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai while Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai and Kolkata are the main transit hubs.

Unless things of the ground change rapidly, the endangered Red Sanders may be wiped out in just a decade from now.

Sources: Botanical Survey of India, Britannica, Journal of Forestry Research, PTI, Springer Nature

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