The aromatic sandalwood tree could become extinct in the Australian bush within 50 to 100 years if wild harvesting continues, a research paper released today warns.
- A research paper warns wild sandalwood is heading towards extinction and calls for the species to be listed as “threatened”
- It recommends wild harvesting be transitioned to plantation farming
- Sandalwood plays an important ecological role in the wild as it is a food source for numerous species
West Australian-based research ecologist and Charles Sturt University PhD candidate Richard McLellan is calling for sandalwood to be added to state and national threatened species listings, as it is in South Australia.
Mr McLellan is also urging the West Australian government to support the transition from wild harvesting to plantation-based farming.
“Sandalwood is not regenerating and hasn’t been regenerating for about 80 to 100 years,” he said.
“At the same time, there’s been huge amounts of sandalwood harvested — both legally and illegally — and probably over-harvesting at unsustainable rates.”
Traditional owners ‘want to help’
Mr McLellan is calling on the WA government to support a transition towards plantation-based farming of sandalwood — a parasitic plant that requires a host tree to provide it with extra water and nutrients through joining roots.
“We need to transition out of the wild harvest in a sensible way so that people who are involved in the industry now are transitioned into the plantation sector or transitioned into the restoration sector,” he said.
Mr McLellan also suggested launching Aboriginal ranger programs to help restore the species.
Mr McLellan said Forest Products Commission income from sandalwood was $17 million in 2019-20, with $2.3 million profit.
This compared with all other native forest income of $39 million, at a final loss of $1.2 million.
“The Western Australian government has made a lot of money out of sandalwood over the years so it would be good to see them invest some money in Aboriginal ranger programs that are asked to collect seed, plant seed and nurture seed,” he said.
A delicate ecological balance
Mr McLellan also pointed to the local extinction of animals, like burrowing bettongs and woylies, as contributing to sandalwood’s decline.
These native marsupials collect seeds from underneath sandalwood trees and bury them near sandalwood host plants, thus encouraging the sandalwood species’ growth.
He said when those animals disappeared, so too did the sandalwood, in turn affecting the species that rely on it.
Mr McLellan said sandalwood was known as a keystone species for the important role it played in maintaining nature’s intricate web of life.
It often flowers and fruits at different times to other bush species, providing an important food source to animals.
Where the government stands
Responding to the ABC earlier this year, Forestry Minister Dave Kelly said:
“Sustainable harvesting of wild sandalwood takes place according to the limits set by the 2015 Sandalwood (Limitation of Removal of Sandalwood) Order in Council, and requirements under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 and Biodiversity Conservation Regulations 2018.”
Mr Kelly said the annual harvest quota would be reviewed before the expiry of the current Order in Council in 2026.