Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Losing the scent - slow death of fragrant timber

Spotlight: Losing the scent - slow death of fragrant timber26 Nov 2006Elizabeth John
It’s a fragrant wood sought after for centuries and it is slowly fading from the wilderness. The trees that produce this wood are being felled in great numbers to feed this insatiable hunger.IT IS the exotic scent of Arabian fairytales, it is in medicines that soothe and heal, and it fills temples in a sweet offering to the gods.Praised and prized over the ages, fragrant agarwood, or gaharu, has survived centuries of extraction from dense jungles and a persistent trade across the globe — until now.In recent years, the warm, musky aroma of one of the world’s most expensive fragrant woods has attracted a dangerous kind of admirer. The poacher.In May, when countries met at the first Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network meeting, five out of 10 named agarwood poaching as a specific priority for increased law enforcement, says Traffic Southeast Asia’s regional director James Compton.Poachers are often coming from neighbouring countries — in Malaysian jungles are Thais and Cambodians. In Laos, there are Vietnamese and Chinese poachers.What’s clear, say authorities, is that the quest for agarwood has become the primary reason foreign poachers enter these forests.Anything else they bag — whether a tiger or fruit bat — is a mere bonus.Hunters risk much in pursuit of the aromatic phenomenon — agarwood is formed in the trunks and roots of certain tree species as a reaction to an infection by a fungus. Living off the lush jungles for four to six weeks at a stretch, in crude structures fashioned from roughly-hacked trees, the poachers scour the forest for their bounty.The price — ranging from RM500 per kg for low-grade fragrant wood paid directly to collectors and up to RM37,000 for a kilo of processed high-grade resinous wood in end markets — makes braving dangerous wild animals in the forest and a jail term seem worthwhile.Traffic’s research shows that such encroachment has occurred in Peninsular Malaysia’s protected areas in Pahang, Perak and Johor. Other researchers looking at the Maliau Basin Conservation Area in Sabah five years ago found that most of the Aquilaria malaccensis — the major agarwood-producing tree species in the state — had been felled in the area they studied. A further twist to the story is that although distilled agarwood oil is a major product in the market and dozens of distilleries are said to exist in Malaysia and the region, there is little tracking of the oil in trade. What was a traditional trade for centuries, supplying very specific markets and a relatively limited number of users, trade has increased dramatically since the 1970s, Traffic’s research shows.Increased purchasing power in large consumer markets, like Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, as well as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has increased the volume of trade — and consequently the volume of harvesting. In the last four years, an ever-growing number of tourists from the Middle East to Malaysia has seen the creation of an "Arab Street" in the heart of Kuala Lumpur dotted with stalls selling agarwood chips and oil.Although targeted at tourists, it is likely that large buyers are also benefiting from the the capital’s large unregulated retail market. No one knows how much of it is taken out of the country, stashed in luggage, as personal effects. It could amount to a great deal, says Compton.The export of over 350 tonnes of agarwood was reported in 2004 as A. malaccensis. This species is protected under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Persistent and possibly increasing demand for agarwood has caused populations of eight of 15 Aquilaria species to decline to the extent of being categorised as "threatened" in the World Conservation Union’s Red List. Of these, six are considered at risk from over-exploitation for the fragrant wood.Malaysia has a long history in the agarwood trade with its first known involvement appearing in a Chinese Customs record in 1200 AD.Together with Indonesia, Malaysia is the world’s largest producer of agarwood for the legal trade with most of it exported as wood chips and powder, according to the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry.Most of the agarwood is traded via Singapore — the world’s major agarwood re-export hub. Last year, just one of several shipments from Malaysia to Singapore contained 122 tonnes of agarwood chips. With harvesting and poaching reaching worrying levels, pressure from large exports isn’t likely to help the survival of the species. It’s partly why the CITES standing committee wants Malaysia to explain why it’s allowing as much as 200 tonnes of agarwood from A. malaccensis to be legally exported next year. "The quota’s very high," explains the CITES secretariat scientific officer for plants, Milena Schmidt.If Malaysia fails to justify the figure in time, the country will be suspended from legal trade in the species on Jan 1. To help the process along, Malaysia recently hosted a group workshop with international experts to discuss the complex global trade, said Compton.Discussions among the 90 delegates from the producing, trading and consumer countries revolved around managing harvests, setting quotas and assessing stocks in the wild.Enforcement issues took centre stage with the workshop agreeing that serious action was needed to stop poaching and smuggling.It is likely that the recently established Asean Wildlife Enforcement Network may serve as a forum for intelligence exchange and, along with Interpol’s wildlife crime working group, enhance enforcement efforts.While a number of producer countries like Malaysia grapple with these problems, a huge shift is taking place elsewhere that could present another worry.To take the pressure off wild sources of agarwood, countries like Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and India are setting up agarwood plantations in a big way.Hectares of agarwood-producing species have been planted and the natural process of infecting the wood is often enhanced through treatment to encourage resin formation in these plantations, says Compton.Thailand’s agarwood growers association currently numbers 44,000 members. In Assam, India, there are 60,000 growers directly involved in such plantations, he adds."So there is a huge human dimension to this trade, involving the livelihoods of many rural people dependent on the industry — both from plantations and the wild."In about five to 10 years, this cultivated fragrant wood will hit the markets. It may offer hope for the survival of the highly desired but greatly beleaguered wild agarwood stocks. "But how do you tell plantation-grown agarwood from wild stocks?" asks Compton. The ability to make the distinction is crucial as it will benefit the conservation of wild species, the development of plantations and legal harvesting, says Compton. Any confusion could give smugglers their most convenient cover, the perfect mask to hide the stench of stolen treasures.

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