Malaysia: 70 nabbed for possession of agarwood

The Star 17 Jul 17;

PETALING JAYA: Seventy people have been caught possessing agarwood or gaharu in 13 operations since 2013.

Natural Resources and Environ­ment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar, however, disagreed that enforcement was lax in addressing the dwindling number of karas trees.

The Forestry Department, he said, carried out 2,349 patrols in jungles this year alone.

While the number of karas trees had shrunk, he said there was still “an abundance” of karas trees in uncharted forests that had yet to be surveyed.

“The fact that it is under Appendix 2 of the CITES Regulation, the species is endangered. It is a long way from being listed under Appendix 1 which will indicate critically endangered status,” Wan Junaidi said in an e-mail response.

Pertubuhan Pelindung Khazanah Alam Malaysia president Puan Sri Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil said the problem was due to poor enforcement.

“The number is still small but we need to reduce or stop completely on the felling of agarwood. Forestry and Perhilitan should start conducting joint operations as illegal loggers are also poaching wild animals,” she said.

‘Liquid gold’ rush endangers karas trees
NICHOLAS CHENG and MEI MEI CHU The Star 17 Jul 17;

Sorja Tan, 22, an orang asli from the Temiar tribe says it is becoming increasingly difficult to find karas trees in the forest.

EXCLUSIVE: GERIK: Sorja Tan (pic) remembers a time when it was easy to find karas trees – tall, straight jungle giants – that grew in the forest reserves here.

Now, there are days when he leaves the forest after a long day of gaharu collecting empty-handed.

“In the past, if you go to the forest, karas trees were not rare. You could find them close together here and there. Now, there are only a few left,” said the 22-year-old of the Temiar tribe living nearby.

Karas trees – or aquilaria malaccensis – are being logged by the tens of thousands in Malaysian jungles, mostly by foreigners because of the valuable agarwood, known locally as gaharu.

One kilogramme of agarwood can fetch between RM4,000 and RM20,000 and its woodchips – which are turned into essential oils used in perfume and incense – fuel a RM26bil global trade every year.

The rareness and value of agarwood oil has led traders to call it “liquid gold” and has sparked many to either grow or log karas trees for profit.

Tan is worried about the agarwood going extinct.

This gold rush is threatening to push Malaysia’s karas trees into extinction, said Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM).

In 2004, the National Forest Inventory estimated there were 3.06 million karas trees in the wild. Today, that number has more than halved to 1.16 million, according to the latest data from the Forestry Department.

The demand for karas trees has become so overwhelming that the Natural Resources and Environment Ministry said its research plantations have been trespassed by illegal loggers who stole 40% of the trees.

However, the ministry does not see the population drop in the wild as alarming.

Karas trees produce agarwood as a reaction to when injured – either by insect or bacterial infection, lightning strikes or even human logging.

The agarwood acts as a defence mechanism for the trees much like white blood cells in the human body, said FRIM researcher Mohd Noor Mahat, who specialises in karas trees.


Valuable bark: A merchant showing a box top quality agarwood sourced from the Malaysian rainforests.
Valuable bark: A merchant showing a box top quality agarwood sourced from the Malaysian rainforests.

Malaysia has about 2,000ha of karas tree plantations, where farmers intentionally infect trees to get them to produce agarwood. But it takes up to at least five years before any agarwood can be harvested.

“Why wait so long when there are trees in the forest, growing for decades, that I can just go and cut down? That’s human behaviour,” Mohd Noor said.

The Forestry Department has said agarwood cartels have been living and harvesting karas trees in jungles here as early as the late 80s.

Most of these foreigners from Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Philippines harvest the woodchips and smuggle them into Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

Mohd Noor said competition between cartels has become so fierce, they have begun arming themselves in the jungle and even fight each other over who gets to chop down which tree.

“The worst thing is, only a small percentage of karas trees produce agarwood. They chop down whatever tree and only get a small bit of agarwood from each. The rest die for nothing,” he said.

While there have been efforts to replant karas trees and enforce illegal removals of it in the wild, Mohd Noor believes the rate of them being chopped down is much higher.

“There is a possibility that it can go extinct. We have yet to study the environmental impact of that but this would mean that the genetics of our karas trees will no longer exist and sources of new medicine and economy from agarwood will be gone,” he said.

Orang asli harvest gaharu in a sustainable manner
The Star 17 Jul 17;

GERIK: Traditionally, orang asli only used the soft bark of karas trees to weave items such as clothes and bags but in the 1980s, they discovered a new source of income – harvesting agarwood.

Deep in the forest reserves here, the karas trees stand tall with large chunks of their trunks gouged out by orang asli checking to see if the agarwood resin has grown in the heartwood inside.

If the heartwood remains a pure yellowish-tan, they would leave the tree to grow but if the coveted deep brown wood is found, they have hit pay dirt and will harvest the agarwood by hacking it into woodchips.

Andak Lembut, a 54-year-old from the Temiar tribe, said the community would only harvest the agarwood they needed for their daily living expenses.

Unless it was a mature tree with high quality agarwood, he said they were careful not to kill the tree, adding that the forest was their main – if not only – source of income.

“We take care of the forest, including the gaharu trees, because it is our source of sustenance. For the orang asli, the forest is our bank ... we only take what we need,” he said.

However, the orang asli community is facing a problem as they compete with poachers for their livelihood.

According to forest researcher Lim Teck Wyn, the orang asli have been sustainably harvesting agarwood for many years without harming the karas tree population.

“They have a system of harvesting where they only take a little bit of agarwood at a time. They only take the dead wood.

“The problem is when foreigners come in and they cut down the whole tree,” he said.

The Vietnamese and Cambodian poachers, said Andak, would log even young karas trees that had not developed any agarwood.

“This is because the agarwood cartels want to increase the price of farmed agarwood by reducing the availability of agarwood in the wild,” he claimed.

The orang asli, Andak admitted, were also supplying agarwood to the black market as the law currently did not allow them to legally collect and trade forest produce.

According to residents here, it is common to see orang asli coming to town and deal discreetly with buyers, some of whom come from as far as Malacca.

“The authorities say we need a permit to harvest and sell agarwood but when we apply, they do not approve our applications,” claimed Andak.

In the Forestry Department of Peninsular Malaysia’s books, orang asli are only allowed to harvest forest produce for personal use.

“It is not fair to charge them to obtain the removal pass (harvesting permit) because they are using this for their own consumption.

“However, lately urban folk are taking advantage of their abori­ginal privileges by hiring them to collect agarwood in big amounts for commercial purposes,” said Forestry Department director-general Datuk Akhirmuddin Mahmud.

“The department will not compromise with this syndicated extraction of agarwood from the Permanent Reserved Forest areas as it is against the National Forestry Act 1984.”

Board: We only export 150,000kg of the rare wood
The Star 21 Jul 17;

PETALING JAYA: With agarwood being declared an endangered species by the Convention on Interna­tional Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB) says it adheres to a yearly export quota of 150,000kg of the rare wood, including wood chips and processed products, for Peninsular Malaysia.

Its deputy director-general Norchahaya Hashim said the board enforces the export permit system efficiently to regulate the trade.

In 2016, MTIB issued 335 export permits that were in compliance with CITES for the export of 121,364kg of agarwood and its related products.

“Although many exporters said the Forestry Department is very strict in approving removal passes or harvesting permit to them, MTIB will only process export permit applications if they are submitted along with the removal passes,” Norchahaya said.

She was responding to allegations by agarwood trade expert Lim Teck Wyn that the permit system of agarwood trade in the country was found wanting, resulting in a booming black market trade for the wood.

Norchahaya said while a permit was required for export purposes, agarwood could still be traded domestically without a permit.

When contacted, the Forestry Department in Peninsular Malaysia said it was strengthening its enforcement team to combat illegal logging including agarwood poaching.

Its director-general Datuk Akhiruddin Mahmud said the department was actively involved in several enforcement strategies like the Malaysian Biodiversity Enforcement Operation Network that involves the Wildlife Department, the military, police and FDPM in combating illegal encroachment of forests and national parks.

“Since 2000, the department has addressed 27 cases involving the poaching and illegal possession of agarwood with 94 offenders arrested, of whom 39 were foreigners and 55 locals,” he said in a statement.

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