Wednesday, March 22, 2023
HomeEnvironmentRed Sanders – An Endangered Species

Red Sanders – An Endangered Species

Red Sander (Pterocarpus santalinus), common name – Rakta Chandan, is an Indian endemic tree species, with a restricted geographical range in the Eastern Ghats. The species is endemic to a distinct tract of forests in Andhra Pradesh and Gajapati district in Odisha. Red Sanders usually grow in rocky, degraded and fallow lands with Red Soil and hot and dry climate.

Red Sanders is known for its rich hue and therapeutic properties. The trees have been cultivated for centuries for their beautiful heartwood that is used in religious rites as well as medicinally. This type of sandalwood tree does not have fragrant wood. It takes some three decades before a tree develops its heartwood. The International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) recently categorized the Red Sanders (or Red Sandalwood) again into the ‘endangered’ category in its Red List. It was classified as ‘near threatened’ in 2018.

This tree is valued for the rich red colour of its wood. The wood is traditionally considered not aromatic. However, in recent years there has been a marked uptake in the use of red sandalwood as a component of incense, especially in the west.  It has a high in demand across Asia, particularly in China and Japan, for use in cosmetics and medicinal products. It is also used for making furniture, woodcraft and musical instruments. Its popularity can be gauged from the fact that a tonne of red sanders costs anything between INR 50 lakh to INR 1 crore in the international market. 


The tree is not to be confused with the aromatic Sandalwood trees that grow natively in Southern India. It is a light-demanding small tree, growing to 8 metres (26 ft) tall with a trunk 50-150 cm diameter. It is fast-growing when young, reaching 5 metres (16 ft) tall in three years, even on degraded soils. It is not frost tolerant, being killed by temperatures of −1 °C. The leaves are alternate, 3-9 cm long, trifoliate with three leaflets. The flowers are produced in short racemes. The fruit is a pod 6-9 cm long containing one or two seeds.

This sandalwood requires lots of sunlight and warm regions. The slow growth of the species and continued harvesting leaves no time for the species to recover naturally. The tree is not, however, picky about soil and can thrive even on degraded soils. Those growing red sandalwood report that it grows fast when young, shooting up to 15 feet (5 m.) in three years before slowing down. Red sanders heartwood is used to make different types of medicines for coughs, vomiting, fever, and diseases of the blood. It is said to cure burns, stop bleeding and treat headaches. 

Emerging threats for cultivation and sustainable management

Sandalwood nuts on tree, Avon Valery, Western Australia, Australia
Sandalwood nuts on tree

High prevalence for illicit felling for smuggling, forest fires, cattle grazing and other anthropogenic threats. 

Red Sanders, known for their rich hue and therapeutic properties and for its demand across Asia, particularly in China and Japan, for use in cosmetics and medicinal products as well as for making furniture, woodcraft and musical instruments. 

Sandalwood Spike Disease:

It is an infectious disease which is caused by phytoplasma. Phytoplasmas are bacterial parasites of plant tissues which are transmitted by insect vectors and involved in plant-to-plant transmission. There is no cure as of now for the infection. Presently, there is no option but to cut down and remove the infected tree to prevent the spread of the disease. The disease was first reported in Kodagu, Karnataka in 1899. More than a million sandalwood trees were removed in the Kodagu and Mysore region between 1903 and 1916.

Usage of red sanders

chess pieces
Chess pieces
  • Pterocarpus santalinus is used in traditional herbal medicine as an antipyretic, anti-inflammatory, anthelmintic, tonic, hemorrhage, dysentery, aphrodisiac, anti-hyperglycemic and diaphoretic. 
  • Red sanders is an astringent and a cooling agent. It is used in the treatment of pimples, acne, wrinkles. It is used in several skincare preparations. 
  • It is also used internally in chronic bronchitis, gonorrhoea and gleet. 
  • Used in Ayurvedic medicine as an anti-septic, wound healing agent and anti-acne treatment. 
  • The paste of the wood is used as a cooling external application for inflammations and headache. A decoction of fruit is used as an astringent tonic in chronic dysentery.

Grading of red sandalwood

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. Lumber pieces with a wavy grain margin are graded as “A” grade. Red sandalwood with wavy grain margins sells at higher prices than standard wood.

Read more:

Smuggling of red sanders

Smugglers bring woodcutters in the guise of construction labourers and put them up at cheap lodges in Kadapa. They are then taken into the forests in groups where they fell the trees for five-ten days and deliver the logs to the smugglers. These logs are now being transported from Kadapa via Bengaluru rather than via Tamil Nadu which was the case earlier. Whether the logs are smuggled from Chittoor and Nellore or from Kadapa via Bengaluru, they are ending up at Chennai or Tuticorin port.

In 2016-17, the Chennai Zonal Unit of Directorate of Revenue Intelligence seized 50,000 tonnes of red sanders. The over-harvest of the species has left the population structure skewed, with trees of harvestable size and maturity being scarce and making up less than 5 per cent of the trees remaining in the wild.

It is listed under Appendix II of CITES and is banned from international trade. The harvest of the tree is also restricted at the state level, but despite this illegal trade continues. There is still an illegal harvest and trade of the species to meet the global demand. This is evidenced by the large volume of timber and Red Sanders products seized by authorities at all stages of the illegal supply,” reads Red List’s summary on Red Sanders.

Red Sanders smuggling continues despite the physical deterrents and patrols in place in Andhra Pradesh, as well as international, national and state-level laws preventing the cutting and transport of species.

Conservation efforts need to be strengthened and developed to protect the species.

In 2019, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, on February 18, 2019, revised its export policy to permit the export of red sander timber, if it is obtained from cultivated land. 

Exporting of sandalwood is illegal in India, the underground market is growing and there are a number of arrests every year of those trying to smuggle this wood to China. Red sandalwood has been used for making the bridge and also the neck of the Japanese musical instrument shamisen. Heartwood is preferred for this purpose.

Challenges in trading 

A farmer can grow the tree, she/he will require permits to fell and transport the wood, which is difficult to obtain. Moreover, the price of this wood in the domestic market is less than half of what it is in the international market as the demand is low. At the same time, the farmer could not even export it earlier as the foreign trade policy prohibited it.

Ironically, the Indian government had itself asked for quotas to export red sanders from CITES as the tree is categorized as a species that needs protection. The Indian government should also create a separate Timber Development Board under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare as a single-window system for all farming activities to facilitate export process. 

Sustainable cultivation and management of red sanders

  • The high-quality root stock is required for the multiplication of Red Sanders. The rootstock need to be collected from the plus trees. This can be co-ordinated with the Forest department.
  • Adequate nursery care and plant protection measures need to be ensured before planting the saplings in the field/forest.
  • Fencing needs to be ensured till the saplings grown to at least 1.5 to 2 metres. Open grazing and browsing by Livestock and Goats need to be prevented at all cost.
  • Saplings should not be harvested and used for building and construction materials such as poles.
  • Children and youth should be made aware on the importance of trees and uses in the schools and colleges for further propagation and sustainable management.
  • Village Forest Committees/Van Surakhshya Samities (VSS) need to be sensitized and oriented on the scientific methods of cultivation, protection/conservation, extraction and sustainable management.
  • Scientific methods of extraction of essential oil, grading, packaging and marketing of the produce should be imparted to women’s groups and youth groups.
  • Market linkages need to be established by State agencies to ensure a proper price to the farmers.
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, GiZ, UNICEF, Sightsavers, Aide et Action, Practical Action, Agragamee, and DAPTA. He has a keen interest in indigenous and marginalized communities, hunger, malnourishment, and food policy issues.

Leave a Reply

Most Popular