On July 29, the Thane division of the Maharashtra forest department seized 75kg of agarwood. Earlier, on July 20, customs official had seized another 75kg. Over the past seven months, 10 people have been arrested for illegally exporting agarwood to the Middle East and the Thane division of Maharashtra forest department has seized 525 kg of smuggled agarwood, said forest officers.
Agarwood, or aquilaria malaccensis, has a long history of being taken to the Arabian peninsula by Indian traders. In ancient times, it was known as the “the wood of the gods” and the resin extracted from it is still described as “liquid gold” because of the exorbitant prices it fetches. Only now, with agarwood heading towards extinction, this trade is illegal.
Jitendra Ramgaokar, deputy conservator of forest, Thane, estimates over 2,000kg of agarwood have been seized in Mumbai over the past two years and 32 people have been arrested for smuggling this precious cargo. “The source of the wood is forest areas in Assam, and smugglers are using fake forest authorisation papers to transport the wood to Mumbai,” said Ramgaokar. “A team from Mumbai was sent to Assam to track down the trade earlier this year, where they found that no permissions were issued by the Assam forest department. Thereafter, regular seizures have been taking place.”
Recently categorised as ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), agarwood grows naturally in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and neighbouring states. According to the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau(WCCB), agarwood is a protected species under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, and scheduled tree species under the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. IUCN estimates deforestation has led to an 80% population decline for the species over the past 150 years.
“There is hardly any agarwood left in forest spaces in Assam under our jurisdiction, and most of it has been exploited. However, there are private forests and home estates in the state where plantations exist, and also neighbouring states that have pockets of these plantations. For transporting the wood, permission from our divisional forest officers is necessary, and in some cases, the papers are being forged,” said Niranjan Kumar Vasu, principal chief conservator of forest, Assam forest department.
“Only when agarwood is infected by a fungus, it produces a protective covering around its bark which is dense and fragrant. The essence extracted from this covering is used to make perfumes and oud oil. This is what makes for the high value of the tree. However, poachers don’t know or realise which tree is infected, and hack healthy ones in the process,” said Vasu.
Aside from oud oil, which forms the base of expensive high-end perfumes, the aromatic wood is used for products like fragrances and incense. “Agarwood can be a source of good income, but it all has to be done in a legal manner. Over the past year, we have carried out lakhs of plantations in the state to protect this species,” said Vasu.
It’s actually illegal to export agarwood, according to Indian laws. “The export of agarwood is prohibited since 1991 and products in the form of logs, timber, stumps, roots, bark, chips, powder, flakes, dust, charcoal and chip form under the foreign trade policy are not allowed,” said an official from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climage Change. “Apart from prohibiting harvest of agarwood in protected areas, we have designated Rain Forest Research Institute (RFRI), Jorhat, Assam as CITES Scientific Authority for conducting research on Agarwood in North East India for better protection of the species.”
Despite the strictures, authorities are seeing more activity in the illegal trade of this product. “Agarwood is in high demand and Mumbai is closest and easiest trade route. So such illegal activities will only increase,” said Jose Louies, who leads the wildlife trade control and litigation division at Wildlife Trust of India. “It is very difficult to detect agarwood when it is being transported because traders make handicrafts, furniture, and various other products to hide the wood. They mis-declare the name of the species. Since the entire process of issuing permissions and certificates is not digitized and fluid communication between state forest departments is missing, such kind of high-value timber trade is on the rise.”
Louies said there needs to be better coordination between agencies to tackle the illegal trade. “The only way out is creating awareness, capacity building and interdepartmental coordination among state governments, forest officials, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Customs and Central Reserve Police Force,” he said.