It take years to grow a matured tree but people would have chopped it down within minutes. Today, poachers are well-entrenched within the forests for one very lucrative reason: gaharu ….. where its deadly enemy is human beings.
Syndicated gangs, often of Thai, Vietnamese or Myanmarese origins, scour the jungle for months in search of Aquilaria malaccensis and the fragrant resin sometimes infused within the heartwood of this tree species. The presence of the resin is, however, unpredictable as it occurs only as an immune response to injury or pathogenic infection.
There are many names for it – gaharu, agarwood or oudh. Its etymology can be traced back to ancient times when gaharu, thought to be derived from the Sanskrit word agaru, was found in and traded from India. It was one of the most sought-after substances in China during the tenth century, and direct exports to the Middle East began sometime in the ninth century.
Damaged: Poachers have chipped off this agarwood tree in the forest near the Penang Botanic Gardens to see if it has been impregnated with the fragrant resin.
Most syndicate-hires lack the skill to distinguish a karas containing gaharu from one that does not. So the poachers hack down every agarwood tree, leaving a trail of unnecessary devastation in their wake.
Decades of relentless harvesting have caused the tree to become increasingly difficult to find. Perhaps, that is why poachers are more brazen now. A 30m-high karas tree was felled close to the Penang Botanic Gardens. The pillaging of gaharu raises wide-ranging issues: illegal collectors armed with axes and M16 rifles not only endanger wildlife but put unarmed wildlife enforcement officers at risk. The illegal trade also bleeds profit from our gross domestic product – exactly how much is lost from royalties and export tax remains unknown.