KOCHI: Poachers and smugglers have always smelt moolah in the enticing scent of sandalwood, and the Santalum trees of Marayoor in Idukki is no exception. There was a time when the place was synonymous with sandalwood smuggling with over 75 per cent families having at least one member booked for the illicit activity.
What used to be a black spot in the crime book of the Forest Department is now experiencing the fragrant winds of change. Home to sandalwood forests, Marayoor is redefining its chequered history by undertaking a host of programmes to preserve its aromatic legacy.
According to statistics available with the Forest Department, only one case of smuggling has been reported this year.
There were 11 in 2016, a considerable drop from the early years of the new millennium when Marayoor was part of the Munnar division of the Forest Department. Before 2005, there used to be around 3,000 cases every year, forcing the High Court to order the enumeration of trees once in three years.
There were occasions when the poachers smuggled sandalwood logs concealed in coffins, conservationist G Rajan Marayoor told Express.
“A smuggler named Antony Das even masqueraded as a corpse in a coffin to ferry the precious logs,” he said. But what led to the decline in the illicit activity?
A local resident and tourist guide Anoop K M said the physical torture meted out by forest officers was one of the main reasons. Range forest officer Job J Neriamparambil of Marayoor Range said there were 24 Vana Samrakshana Samithis (VSS) in the area employing around 1,000 families, including tribals. “The samithi members have been engaged in fire protection activities, digging pits for rainwater harvesting and preparing nurseries,” he said.
Besides, a good number of local people, including many ex-smugglers, have been recruited as forest watchers. Another factor is tourism with the forests turning out to be a crowd-puller. The state government is now preparing to set up a sandalwood museum in Marayoor. “All these developments played a pivotal role in reducing smuggling and driving home the need to conserve the natural treasure,” the officer said.
However, there are challenges yet to be addressed. As per the last census of 2013-14, there were 63,557 sandalwood trees in the Marayoor division, in addition to those on private tracts.
As per the provision of the Kerala Forest Act, sandalwood trees on private property can be felled only if they wither away naturally. They can be auctioned only through the Forest Department. Besides, the lengthy processes involved in the registration and other formalities related to the auction often dissuade owners from going through the proper channel. Instead, they strike a deal with smugglers who axe the tree and cart it away.
“To conceal the trail, the owner will approach the police or forest officers later and file a complaint alleging theft. But the trend has come down considerably in the wake of better awareness programmes among the people,” said a forest officer.
Marayoor DFO Afsal Ahammed said the e-auction of sandalwood was not attractive in the last fiscal. “But there has always been a good demand for Marayoor sandalwood in the cosmetic and perfume industries as they are best for extracting oil - also known as liquid gold. Though the department had conceived a project to either insert a chip or plant a radio collar on the trees, it was not launched because of the cost factor and the dip in smuggling,” the officer said.