As a young man, Badimia elder Ashley Bell made money from harvesting sandalwood, but now he’s so concerned about the sustainability of wild sandalwood he’s calling for a ban on removing it from his traditional lands.
- Sandalwood has been shipped out of Western Australia since 1844
- There are calls for greater conservation of wild sandalwood trees
- The plantation industry says it is ready to fill the sandalwood market with its trees
Native Australian sandalwood, Santalum spicatum, is a small, slow-growing hemiparasitic tree containing valuable heartwood which grows in the southern half of Western Australia.
Wanted by incense and oil markets, sandalwood has been commercially harvested in the state for 175 years, but concerns have been raised about the sustainability of wildwood populations under current government management arrangements.
Years ago, like many people, Mr Bell and his father made an income harvesting and selling sandalwood.
“I’ve been in the sandalwood industry since I was 14. I used to go out sandalwood [harvesting] and help with the barking and the packing, and the pulling of the sandalwood,” he said.
He’s now worried wild populations of the fragrant tree are on a path towards extinction.
“A lot of the elders that have been in the industry have done [sandalwood harvesting] for a job for years and years, and they were never, ever told the truth about the plant getting close to extinction,” Mr 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-growing Australian sandalwood.
Each year, 2,500 tonnes of sandalwood is legally harvested across the state’s rangelands, bound for oil or incense markets around the world.
Top grade heartwood can fetch $15,000 a tonne.
“Their management practices of harvesting wild sandalwood … I think it’s more for the money and doesn’t coincide with what the science says,” Mr Bell said.
Research ecologist Richard McLellan has spent the past three years reviewing the science around sandalwood regeneration and mortality.
He said the estimated wild population of Australian sandalwood had decreased by as much as 90 per cent.
“The bottom line is that no-one knows how much is left, we just know it’s not regenerating and is therefore declining in numbers through natural mortality and harvesting.”
He said there had been no regeneration of sandalwood “for maybe 80 to 100 years” and most of the sandalwood plants were between 100 to 200 years old.
“In the [sandalwood industry] parliamentary inquiry in Western Australia between 2012 and 2014, it came out there that may be a sustainable rate of harvest would be perhaps 200 tonnes a year,” he said.
“We’re harvesting at an unsustainable rate and yet is not recruiting or regenerating at anywhere near that rate.”
Mr McLellan said government developed regeneration and reseeding programs were not working.
“The [state government’s] sandalwood harvesting proposal said we’d produce about 100,000 seedlings a year. FPC is saying, ‘Well, maybe now we can only produce 50,000 a year’, but the annual reports show that they’re not achieving that,” he said.
“That’s largely because we’re not getting the rainfall that they need in the Goldfields and the Great Western Woodlands to help them,” he said.
Mr McLellan’s research was recently published in the Rangeland Journal.
In a written statement, a state government spokesperson said harvesting of wild sandalwood was managed under strict sustainability criteria.
They said half of all wood harvested had already died naturally and the FPC was working to increase wild sandalwood regeneration and was establishing 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 seed that has remained dormant due to drought conditions, now germinating up to five years after it was sown.”
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.
Mr Bell said he wanted harvesting of wild sandalwood banned on Badimia land, and he believes all Australian sandalwood should be classified as an endangered species.
While it’s viewed as a forestry timber in WA, sandalwood is protected and listed as “vulnerable” in South Australia.
“It’s one of the fastest disappearing plants in our landscape at the moment, and it’s been heavily harvested for it for hundreds of years,” Mr Bell said.
“A lot of the little animals that used to bury the seeds as well that have gone from the landscape.
“They’d collect the seeds and bury them like a squirrel would and come back later and eat them later on, and they’ve become extinct.
“There’s not too many of them left, but we try and look after the ones that are left.”
He said any young plants that did germinate were quickly eaten off by livestock and native animals.
The plant has been an important part of Indigenous culture for thousands of years.
“We were taught in our culture that it’s a food source and medicine and used in smoking ceremonies, and it’s a plant that we don’t really want to see go out of the landscape,” Mr Bell said.
Transition to plantation harvest
Both Ashley Bell and Richard McLellan are urging the WA government to support a transition from wild harvesting to plantation farming.
WA Sandalwood Plantations (WASP) manages 13,000 hectares of native Australian sandalwood trees growing in plantations across the WA Wheatbelt.
This year WASP began full clear-fell of some of its plantation trees.
WASP managing director Keith Drage wants government to honour a commitment he said it made 20 years ago to develop the plantation sector, and then transition into it, away from wild harvest.
“I think the biggest disappointment is simply that when we got into this industry back in the very early 2000s, it was supported with some good government policy around, incentivising private industry to invest in the Wheatbelt, in various woodland species, but particularly sandalwood,” he said.
“And it came with a very well-articulated policy around government enabling that process.
“The Forest Products Commission were the agency that was appointed to work within that process, but with a clear desire that over time there would be a transition into a new world of reduced wild harvest to complement this renewable plantation resource.”
This year WASP will harvest about 400 tonnes of plantation sandalwood, and by 2023 that harvest total could increase to 4,000 tonnes per annum.
The company was one of 12 signatories to a letter sent to the WA state government last year detailing concerns about the sustainability of wild sandalwood populations.
It also warned of the potential price collapse, with additional tonnes of plantation wood entering the marketplace which has previously only dealt with wildwood.
Keith Drage and WASP co-founder Ron Mulder are also part owners of wildwood distillation company Dutjahn Sandalwood Oils.
The Kalgoorlie-based company is 50 per cent owned by Indigenous Australians and provides valuable employment opportunities for traditional owners to work on country.
WASP is lobbying government for a reduction in the state’s wildwood harvest, but with some harvest permitted by Indigenous groups.
The FPC also manages 6,000 hectares of plantation Australian sandalwood.
In a recently released report, it said it planned to begin harvest of its plantations in 2026.
A WA government spokesperson said the annual sandalwood harvest quota would be reviewed prior to 2026.
They said due to reduced global demand, the FPC’s full quota of wild sandalwood was not currently being harvested.