Encourages better protection of wild sandalwood in the midst of fear of extinction

As a young man, Badimia elder Ashley Bell earned money by harvesting sandalwood, but now he is so concerned about the sustainability of wild sandalwood that he demands a ban on removing it from his traditional lands.

Native Australian sandalwood, Santalum spicatum, is a small, slow-growing semi-parasitic tree that contains valuable heartwood that grows in the southern half of western Australia.

Wanted by incense and oil markets, sandalwood has been harvested commercially in the state for 175 years, but concerns have been raised about the sustainability of game tree stocks under current government arrangements.

Years ago, Mr. Bell and his father, like many people, earned by harvesting and selling sandalwood.

A man wearing a blue shirt with gray hair looks at a tree.
Ashley Bell wants wild sandalwood to be a protected species.(ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

“I’ve been in the sandalwood industry since I was 14. I used to go out in sandalwood [harvesting] and help with the barking and packing, and with pulling the sandalwood, “he said.

He is now concerned that wild populations of the fragrant tree are on the verge of extinction.

“Many of the seniors who have been in the industry have done so [sandalwood harvesting] for a job for years, and they were never ever told the truth that the plant was close to extinction, “Bell said.

Study casts doubt on sustainability

The WA Government’s Forest Products Commission (FPC) is responsible for the commercial harvesting, regeneration, marketing and sale of wild Australian sandalwood.

Every year, 2,500 tons of sandalwood are harvested legally across state land areas, en route to oil or incense markets around the world.

The highest quality heartwood can bring in $ 15,000 per. ton.

“Their management practice of harvesting wild sandalwood … I think it’s more for the money and does not coincide with what science says,” Mr Bell said.

A sandalwood tree that grows in red dirt surrounded by wild flowers
After 175 years of harvesting and exporting, concerns have been raised about the future of WA’s wild sandalwood trees. (ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

Research ecologist Richard McLellan has spent the last three years reviewing the science of regeneration and mortality of sandalwood.

He said the estimated wild population of Australian sandalwood had fallen by as much as 90 per cent.

“The bottom line is that no one knows how much is left, we just know it does not regenerate and therefore decreases in number through natural mortality and harvest.”

A man wearing a wide-brimmed hat and glasses looks at a leaf of sandalwood
Richard McLellan believes that sandalwood is being harvested at an unsustainable pace. (ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

He said there had been no regeneration of sandalwood “for maybe 80 to 100 years” and most of the sandalwood plants were between 100 and 200 years old.

“IN [sandalwood industry] “Parliamentary research in Western Australia between 2012 and 2014 showed that a sustainable harvest rate might be 200 tonnes a year,” he said.

“We harvest at an unsustainable speed and yet we do not recruit or regenerate near that speed.”

McLellan said government-developed regeneration and reseeding programs were not working.

“That [state government’s] The proposal to harvest sandalwood said we would produce about 100,000 seedlings a year. The FPC says, ‘Well, maybe we can only produce 50,000 a year,’ but the annual reports show they are not achieving that, he said.

“It’s largely because we’re not getting the rainfall they need in the Goldfields and Great Western Woodlands to help them,” he said.

McLellan’s research was recently published in CSIRO’s Rangeland Journal.

A pile of sandalwood branches.
The sandalwood is used to produce incense and oil.(ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

In a written statement, a spokesman for the state government said harvesting of wild sandalwood was managed under strict sustainability criteria.

They said half of all harvested wood had already died naturally, and the FPC was working to increase the regeneration of wild sandalwood and established young sandalwood trees.

“The FPC actively sows more wild sandalwood than it harvests, sowing between 5 and 10 million wild sandalwood seeds annually across an area equivalent to the distance between Perth and Karratha,” the statement said.

“The FPC’s wild sandalwood replanting program is currently reaping the benefits of this year’s winter rainfall, with seeds remaining dormant due to drought conditions and now sprouting up to five years after sowing.”

Push to ban harvest on traditional lands

Ashley Bell and his family have formally requested that no sandalwood be taken from their property, Ninghan Station, in WA’s Mid West.

Bell said he wanted to harvest wild sandalwood banned on Badimia land and he believes all Australian sandalwood should be classified as an endangered species.

While seen as a forestry tree in WA, sandalwood is protected and listed as “vulnerable” in southern Australia.

A sandalwood tree with the sun behind it.
Richard McLellan believes that most sandalwood trees left in WA’s mountain ranges are old trees.(ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

“It’s one of the fastest disappearing plants in our landscape at the moment, and it’s been harvested heavily for it for hundreds of years,” Bell said.

“Many of the small animals that used to bury the seeds have also gone from the landscape.

“They would collect the seeds and bury them like a squirrel would and come back later and eat them later and they have become extinct.

“There are not too many of them left, but we are trying to take care of those who are left.”

He said that all the young plants that sprouted were quickly eaten by domestic animals and native animals.

The plant has been an important part of the original culture for thousands of years.

“We were taught in our culture that it is a food source and medicine and is used in smoking ceremonies, and it is a plant that we do not really want to see go out of the landscape,” Mr Bell said.

A pile of tree trunks sits under a white dome.
Plantations of Australian sandalwood in the Wheatbelt are ready for harvest.(ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

Transition to plantation harvest

Both Ashley Bell and Richard McLellan are urging the WA government to support a transition from wild harvesting to plantation use.

WA Sandalwood Plantations (WASP) manages 13,000 acres of native Australian sandalwood trees that grow in plantations across the WA Wheatbelt.

This year, WASP began full clearing of some of its plantation trees.

WASP CEO Keith Drage wants the government to honor a commitment it said it made 20 years ago to develop the plantation sector and then move on to it, away from wild harvesting.

A close-up of a man looking away from the camera.
WASP’s CEO Keith Drage wants the amount of game wood taken from WA’s field areas to be significantly reduced. (ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

“I think the biggest disappointment is simply that when we entered this industry back in the early 2000s, it was backed by a good government policy around that encouraged the private industry to invest in Wheatbelt. , in various forest varieties, but especially sandalwood, “he said.

“And it came with a very well-articulated policy around the government that made that process possible.

“The Forest Products Commission was the agency appointed to work within that process, but with a clear desire that over time there would be a transition to a new world of reduced wild harvest to complement this sustainable plantation resource.”

This year, WASP will harvest about 400 tons of plantation sandalwood, and by 2023, the total harvest could increase to 4,000 tons per year.

A machine picks a sandalwood tree off the ground.
Thousands of acres of Australian sandalwood growing in plantations in the Wheatbelt will be ready for harvest over the next decade. (ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

The company was one of 12 signatories to a letter sent to the WA state government last year outlining concerns about the sustainability of wild sandalwood tree populations.

It also warned of the potential fall in prices, with additional tonnes of plantation timber entering the marketplace, which had previously only dealt with game timber.

Keith Drage and WASP co-founder Ron Mulder are also co-owners of the game tree distillery Dutjahn Sandalwood Oils.

The Kalgoorlie-based business is 50 per cent owned by native Australians and provides valuable employment opportunities for traditional owners working in the countryside.

WASP is lobbying the government for a reduction in the state’s game tree harvest, but with some harvesting allowed by indigenous groups.

A piece of cut sandalwood showing the heartwood in the middle.
The heartwood of sandalwood contains a valuable aromatic oil. (ABC Landline: Chris Lewis)

The FPC also manages 6,000 acres of plantation Australian sandalwood.

In a recently released report, it said it planned to begin harvesting its plantations in 2026.

A spokesman for the WA government said the annual harvest quota for sandalwood would be revised before 2026.

They said due to reduced global demand, the FPC’s full quota of wild sandalwood was not harvested at the moment.


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