Kenya is losing the Sandalwood tree (Osyris lanceolata) to illegal harvesting. The harvesting – initially reported in the Chyulu hills – seems to have escalated and has now been reported in Kajiado, Taita, Amboseli and surrounding ranches, Samburu, Koibatek, and Kikuyu Escarpment and many other areas. In most areas it’s being harvested without much control.
Sandalwood is exploited for its essential oils used in perfumery. The heartwood of the trunk, main branches and roots contain an essential oil. The oil blends so well and with many fragrance materials that it has become a common blender-fixative used in countless perfumes.
The problem first existed along the Kenyan-Tanzania border, with most of the exploitation occurring in the Chyulu hills where the tree still grows in abundance compared to the other areas.
The tree grows to a height of 1-6m, but it’s the roots that are most favored. The essential oil concentration is highest in the roots, followed by the trunk. The tree is dioecious (male and female on separate trees) and the female is most preferred as it is said to have a better quality of heartwood.
Under normal conditions young trees grow slowly, only gradually developing a core of heartwood. Uprooting the tree is therefore seriously depleting its numbers. As the tree is also parasitic and regenerates via shoots from exposed roots, this mode of harvesting will undermine regeneration.
It is believed that the tree is being traded in Tanzania. The sharp rise in extraction in Kenya is linked to over exploitation coupled by strict surveillance in Tanzania. The tree is being harvested in Kenya and exported through various undisclosed routes to Tanzania. After value addition (semi processing) the products are re-exported to Indonesia, India, South Africa, France, Germany and eastern Asia countries for the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry.
A taskforce of government institutions was formed to look into the harvesting and trade of sandalwood. In its preliminary survey report it says that poverty in the areas where this species occur is an underlying factor that might make the fight against the illegal trade difficult to win.
Communities in these areas are living under extreme poverty and are ready to undertake any kind of business to earn a livelihood, even when they are being exploited. For example, communities around Chyulu National Park earn KShs 4 to KShs 7 for every kilo harvested, which the middleman sells at Kshs 80 Per kilo. Successful intervention measures therefore would have to address poverty, and other sources of livelihood.
Propagation of the tree is also being researched at by the Kenya Forestry Research Institute. For now surveillance is being stepped up and appeals have been made to relevant authorities, such as the Kenya Ports Authority, to block the points of exit.
This post first appeared in an issue of KFWG’s Misitu News.