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Red Sanders – An Endangered Species

Red Sander, scientifically known as Pterocarpus santalinus, and locally called Rakta Chandan, is an Indian tree species that has a limited distribution in the Eastern Ghats. It is endemic to a specific area of forests in Andhra Pradesh and Gajapati district in Odisha, where it grows in rocky, degraded, and fallow lands with red soil, and a hot and dry climate. Red Sander is highly valued for its therapeutic properties and its characteristic rich hue. It has been cultivated for centuries for its stunning heartwood, which is used in religious ceremonies and traditional medicine.

Unlike other sandalwood species, this tree does not have fragrant wood, and it takes approximately 30 years for a tree to develop its prized heartwood. Unfortunately, due to overexploitation and habitat loss, the Red Sander has been recently reclassified as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), after being classified as ‘near threatened’ in 2018. This reclassification emphasizes the need for urgent conservation efforts to protect this important species.

About Red Sandalwood Tree (Pterocarpus santalinus)

The Red Sandalwood tree is highly valued for the unique and vibrant red hue of its wood. Although traditionally considered non-aromatic, there has been a recent surge in the use of Red Sandalwood as an ingredient in incense, particularly in Western countries. This species is in high demand across Asia, especially in China and Japan, where it is used in cosmetics and medicinal products. The wood is also sought after for making furniture, woodcraft, and musical instruments. Its widespread popularity is evident from the fact that a tonne of Red Sanders can fetch between INR 50 lakh to INR 1 crore in the international market.

This particular species of tree should not be confused with the aromatic Sandalwood trees that are native to Southern India. The Red Sandalwood tree is a relatively small, light-demanding tree that can reach a height of up to 8 metres (26 ft), with a trunk diameter ranging from 50-150 cm. When young, it is fast-growing, even on degraded soils, and can reach a height of 5 metres (16 ft) in just three years. However, it is not frost tolerant and cannot survive temperatures below −1 °C. The leaves are trifoliate, meaning they have three leaflets and are 3-9 cm long, while the flowers grow in short racemes. The fruit of the Red Sandalwood tree is a pod that is 6-9 cm long and contains one or two seeds.

The Red Sandalwood tree thrives in warm, sun-drenched regions. Unfortunately, due to its slow growth rate and continued harvesting, there is often little time for the species to recover naturally. However, this tree is not particularly selective when it comes to soil type and can even grow well in degraded soils. Those who have cultivated Red Sandalwood report that it grows rapidly during its early years, reaching heights of up to 15 feet (5 m.) in just three years before slowing down. The heartwood of the Red Sandalwood tree is highly prized for its medicinal properties and is used in the creation of various medicines for ailments such as coughs, vomiting, fever, and blood disorders. It is believed to have the ability to heal burns, stop bleeding, and treat headaches.

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New Challenges Facing Cultivation and Sustainable Management

Illicit felling, forest fires, cattle grazing, and other human-caused (anthropogenic) activities pose a significant threat to the survival of the red sandalwood species. These activities are highly prevalent and have been observed to occur frequently, leading to a serious decline in the population of red sandalwood trees. Specifically, illicit felling (the act of cutting down trees illegally) is a common practice used for smuggling, while forest fires and cattle grazing can cause significant damage to the trees and their natural habitat. Such anthropogenic threats have become a major concern for the sustainable management of the red sandalwood species.

Red Sanders are tree species that are highly valued for their rich hue and therapeutic properties. They are in high demand across Asia, particularly in China and Japan, for use in a wide range of products including cosmetics and medicinal items, as well as in the manufacturing of furniture, woodcraft, and musical instruments. The heartwood of the Red Sanders tree has been used for centuries in religious rites and is also used in the production of traditional medicines to treat a variety of ailments such as coughs, vomiting, fever, and diseases of the blood.

Additionally, the wood is prized for its beautiful appearance and durability, making it a popular choice for furniture makers and craftsmen. Due to their high value, these trees are often illegally harvested, leading to their endangerment and the need for sustainable management practices to ensure their long-term survival.

Sandalwood Spike Disease

Sandalwood Spike Disease is an infectious disease that affects sandalwood trees. The disease is caused by a type of bacteria known as phytoplasma, which are parasitic microorganisms that live in plant tissues and are transmitted by insect vectors. The disease spreads from infected trees to healthy ones, making it a plant-to-plant transmission disease. Unfortunately, there is currently no known cure for the disease, and the only way to prevent its spread is by cutting down and removing the infected trees. The disease was first reported in the Kodagu district of Karnataka, India in 1899, and it led to the removal of more than a million sandalwood trees in the Kodagu and Mysore regions between 1903 and 1916.

Significance of Red Sanders

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Chess board
  • Pterocarpus santalinus is a versatile plant used in traditional herbal medicine for various purposes such as reducing fever, inflammation, and parasites, as well as serving as a tonic, stopping bleeding, treating dysentery, enhancing libido, controlling high blood sugar levels, and inducing sweating.
  • Red sanders has astringent and cooling properties, which make it useful in treating skin conditions such as pimples, acne, and wrinkles. It is often included as an ingredient in various skincare products.
  • Red sanders are also used for internal purposes such as treating chronic bronchitis, gonorrhea, and gleet.
  • Red sanders is commonly used in Ayurvedic medicine for its anti-septic properties, as well as its ability to aid in wound healing and treat acne.
  • The wood paste is applied externally to provide a cooling effect for inflammation and headaches. Additionally, the fruit decoction is used as a tonic for chronic dysentery due to its astringent properties.

Red Sandalwood Grading System

Red sandalwood is a highly valued and sought-after species of tree that is native to southern India. The quality of red sandalwood is determined by various factors, including the soil type, altitude, and climatic conditions in which the tree was grown. Red sandalwood grown on shale sub soils, at altitudes around 750 metres (2,460 ft), and in semi-arid climatic conditions gives a distinctive wavy grain margin. The wavy grain margin is highly prized because it is considered to be a sign of high quality and indicates that the wood is strong and durable. Lumber pieces with the wavy grain margin are graded as “A” grade, which is the highest grade of red sandalwood available.

Red Sanders Black Market

The process of smuggling red sanders involves bringing woodcutters disguised as construction laborers to cheap lodges in Kadapa. These groups of woodcutters are then taken into the forests to fell trees for a period of five to ten days, after which they deliver the logs to the smugglers.

Recently, logs are being transported from Kadapa through Bengaluru instead of Tamil Nadu, which was previously the case. Regardless of where the logs are smuggled from, whether it be Chittoor, Nellore or Kadapa via Bengaluru, they all end up at Chennai or Tuticorin port. The over-harvesting of red sanders has resulted in a skewed population structure, with only less than 5% of the remaining trees being of harvestable size and maturity. The Chennai Zonal Unit of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence reported the seizure of 50,000 tonnes of red sanders in 2016-17.

Red Sanders is a species listed under Appendix II of CITES and is prohibited from international trade. At the state level, there are restrictions on the harvest of the tree, but illegal trade persists. The high demand for Red Sanders products fuels this illegal trade, as evidenced by the large amount of seized timber and products at various stages of the illegal supply chain. The Red List’s summary on Red Sanders highlights the continued over-harvesting and trade of the species, despite regulations in place.

Despite the implementation of physical deterrents and regular patrols in Andhra Pradesh, as well as the existence of international, national, and state-level laws prohibiting the cutting and transport of Red Sanders, smuggling of the species still persists. In order to safeguard the Red Sanders species, it is imperative to enhance and fortify conservation efforts.

On February 18, 2019, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade revised its export policy to allow the export of red sandalwood timber obtained from cultivated land. However, it’s worth noting that the export of sandalwood is illegal in India, and despite this, the underground market for it continues to grow. Law enforcement authorities regularly make arrests of individuals attempting to smuggle the wood to China. The heartwood of red sandalwood is particularly valued for making the bridge and neck of the Japanese musical instrument, shamisen.

Obstacles Faced in Red Sanders Trading

Red Sanders

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A farmer can cultivate the red sandalwood tree, but obtaining permits to fell and transport the wood can be challenging. Additionally, the demand for the wood in the domestic market is low, resulting in prices that are less than half of what they are in the international market. Furthermore, the farmer was unable to export the wood due to the foreign trade policy that prohibited it.

It is ironic that the Indian government, which had classified red sanders as a species requiring protection, had requested quotas to export it from CITES. To facilitate the export process, the government should establish a separate Timber Development Board under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare to serve as a single-window system for all farming activities.

Promoting Sustainable Cultivation and Management of Red Sanders

  • To propagate Red Sanders successfully, it is crucial to obtain high-quality root stock sourced from plus trees. Coordinating with the Forest department can facilitate the collection of such root stock.
  • Before planting Red Sanders saplings in the field or forest, it is essential to provide sufficient nursery care and implement effective plant protection measures.
  • To safeguard Red Sanders saplings from livestock and goat browsing, it is critical to install fencing until the saplings have grown to a height of 1.5 to 2 meters. It is imperative to prevent open grazing by livestock at all costs.
  • It is recommended not to harvest Red Sanders saplings for the purpose of using them as building and construction materials, such as poles.
  • To promote further propagation and sustainable management of Red Sanders, it is crucial to educate children and youth on the significance of these trees and their various uses. Schools and colleges can play a vital role in creating awareness about Red Sanders among the younger generation.
  • To ensure the scientific cultivation, protection, conservation, extraction, and sustainable management of Red Sanders, it is necessary to sensitize and orient Village Forest Committees/Van Surakhshya Samities (VSS). This can equip them with the knowledge and skills required to manage these trees effectively.
  • Women’s groups and youth groups can benefit from learning about the scientific methods of extracting essential oil, grading, packaging, and marketing of Red Sanders. This can help them to participate effectively in the value chain of Red Sanders and contribute to its sustainable management.
  • To ensure that farmers receive a fair price for their Red Sanders produce, State agencies should establish market linkages. This can help create a transparent and efficient value chain that benefits both producers and buyers.

Pushpa: The Rise is a 2021 Telugu-language film directed by Sukumar. The movie features Allu Arjun in the lead role and revolves around the issue of Red Sandalwood smuggling. The film is set in the forests of Andhra Pradesh, where Red Sanders trees are illegally felled and smuggled for their high market value. The movie showcases the harsh realities of the people involved in this illegal trade, including the smugglers, police, and forest officials.

The plot follows the life of Pushpa Raj (Allu Arjun), a smuggler who becomes the target of the police and forest officials due to his involvement in Red Sandalwood smuggling. The film sheds light on the dangerous nature of this illegal trade, with violent clashes and chases between the smugglers and the authorities being a common occurrence. The film also delves into the social and economic factors that drive people to take up this risky and illegal activity.

The movie not only depicts the negative aspects of Red Sandalwood smuggling but also highlights the need for sustainable management of this resource. The film brings attention to the importance of preserving the forests and the need for a collaborative effort between the government, forest officials, and the local community to achieve this goal. The movie’s popularity has also helped to raise awareness about the issue of Red Sandalwood smuggling and its impact on the environment and society.

Ravi S. Behera
Ravi S. Behera
Mr. Ravi Shankar Behera, PGDAEM, National Institute of Agricultural Extension Management (MANAGE), Hyderabad is an independent freelance Consultant and Author based in Bhubaneswar. He is an Honorary Advisor to grassroots Voluntary Organizations on Food Security, Forest and Environment, Natural Resource Management, Climate Change and Social Development issues. Ravi has lived and worked in various states of India and was associated with international donors and NGOs over the last twenty three years including ActionAid, DanChurchAid, Embassy of Sweden/Sida, Aide et Action, Sightsavers, UNICEF, Agragamee, DAPTA and Practical Action. He has a keen interest in indigenous communities and food policy issues.
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