The natural treasure that is worth more than gold whose intoxicating smell pushes it towards extinction

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When it comes to the lucrative — yet destructive — relationships in nature, it’s hard to beat the one between the fusarium fungus and Aquilaria trees. The tropical trees are virtually worthless when healthy, but once the fusarium has made its way into the wood, the result is one of the world’s most sought-after products – agarwood.

Enjoyed and coveted for over a millennium, Agarwood is the dark, highly resinous wood produced in the heart of Aquilaria trees in response to infection in nature by Fusarium and other molds. But while it’s a well-functioning defense mechanism against fungal parasites, it’s Aquilaria’s tragedy that by fending off one threat, it attracts another far deadlier one in the form of beings. humans and their longing for the treasures of nature.

Gram for gram, agarwood, also known as oud and prized for its heady fragrance used for centuries in incense, is the most valuable animal product on the planet – worth up to 40 times more than gold. It is at the center of a legal trade in agarwood products, ranging from wood chips to essential oils, worth around £7billion a year, alongside which is a booming market boom illicit trade relies heavily on the illegal harvesting of trees from the wild.

Demand for agarwood has been boosted in recent years by its growing popularity as an ingredient in perfumes and the suggestion – as yet scientifically unproven – that it may be an effective treatment for Covid-19.

Later this month, a summit of signatory countries to the United Nations CITES treaty on the threatened species will hear a warning from the UK government that the growing demand for agarwood is such that several populations of Aquilaria species are threatened with extinction in the wild and that urgent action is needed to help boost the customs controls against a booming trade in illegal timber.

Some 13 different species of Aquilaria – 65% of the total – are now considered threatened, including four in critical condition.

Safer The threatened species

A survey of I found that the UK Border Force, which enforces CITES regulations prohibiting trade in endangered species, has seized nearly 170 shipments of medicinal or health products containing agarwood in the past three years.

This is on top of 50 unauthorized shipments of agarwood chips – worth up to $25,000 (£22,000) a kilo – seized last year at Heathrow Airport and in other British hubs bound for the Persian Gulf, where scented wood is particularly sought after.

A British government document submitted to the CITES summit in Panama later this month, seen by Iwarns that the illegal harvesting and trade of agarwood is a “serious problem” that threatens to devastate the dwindling numbers of wild Aquilaria trees throughout Southeast Asia and parts of the Pacific.

Noting a “continuing decline” in Aquilaria populations, the report states: “Due to the high value of agarwood, buyers are actively seeking areas with remaining wild trees to ensure they have stock. available… Even in protected areas, agarwood has been reported to be illegally harvested in some states.

The document continues: “Harvesting wild trees may involve indiscriminate felling of trees because the outward signs that a tree has produced agarwood, or the quality of the agarwood, are not always visible. until they are cut”.

The international trade in agarwood dates back at least to Greek and Roman times, when exchanges of aromatic woods with merchants in India and China are recorded, and the trade had been sustainably managed for centuries.

Agarwood is the highly resinous wood produced in the heart of Aquilaria trees in response to infection in nature by molds (Photo: Hassan Ammar/AFP via Getty)

Only the resinous heartwood of the tree that grows in response to fungal infection counts as “oud” or agarwood. In places like Malaysia and Indonesia, forest communities have become able to manage their resources sustainably. The Dayaks in Indonesia can identify agarwood by the different sounds produced by striking the trunk, allowing the resinous growth to be cut off while leaving the rest of the tree to grow.

A large number of agarwood-producing countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia, have responded to the threat of overexploitation in recent years by establishing cultivated Aquilaria plantations. Trees are inoculated with fungi such as fusarium to induce agarwood growth before being harvested up to 24 months later.

But aficionados tend to view the product of cultivated trees as inferior to the wild version. And with demand exceeding supply, the result is an ability to command huge prices for such a rare and valuable resource with religious uses in Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.

The value of the global trade in agarwood and agarwood products is currently estimated at $6-8 billion (£5.3-7.1 billion) each year.

Arabic incense burns in a market in Dubai. Agarwood products are prized in the Middle East and Asia as incense ingredients (Photo: Tyson Paul/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty)

While the highest quality raw shavings can fetch considerable sums, that’s nothing compared to the price of the essential oil – known in Arabic as “dahn al oud” or “oud fat” – extracted wood. The purest oil costs up to £1,700 per millilitre, around 30-40 times the equivalent weight of gold.

Preservation experts warn that there has been a recent broadening of interest in agarwood as an ingredient in high-end beauty products. James Compton, who studied the craft for a UK-based charity TRAFFICsaid, “The major shift in end-use products since the early 2000s is the increasing use of oud as an ingredient in Western-style perfumes and fragrances.”

Indeed, agarwood has become a prominent ingredient in fragrances produced by some of the world’s leading perfumers, although there are no suggestions of wrongdoing – manufacturers either rely on synthetic chemical facsimiles of the active ingredients of the oud, either on essential oil from sustainable plantations.

But the premium on all things oud-related is driving an ever-growing demand for agarwood amid what Mr Compton says is a proliferation of shoddy, adulterated or counterfeit products from other tree species. while others seek to profit from it.

Illegally sourced agarwood in the form of chips or oils tends to be sent in parcel post or airfreight, leading customs authorities like the UK Border Force to focus on airports in their attempts to suppress trade.

A police source said I“The wildlife trade is driven by rarity and reputation. The rarer the animal or plant, the higher the price. The higher the reputation, whether it is the fictions that surround the medicinal qualities of rhinoceros horn or the status conferred by the possession of a bottle of pure agarwood oil, the more it is in demand.

“Together, these elements create an opportunity for fraudsters and criminals to smuggle or counterfeit the requested product. Agarwood is increasingly caught up in this sort of dynamic.

Another source of pressure on Aquilaria is the recent demand for agarwood in places like China as a supposed treatment for Covid-19. TRAFFIC said agarwood was one of many plant products that had seen growing demand amid global interest in potential herbal remedies during the pandemic, particularly in China where a species of ‘Aquilaria, listed by CITES as vulnerable, is among 125 plant species listed by authorities as ingredients for traditional medicines to treat coronavirus

Safer Conservation

Sources said I that powdered agarwood and products containing the essential oil had been offered for sale in China and elsewhere during the pandemic despite little evidence that they offered any clinical benefit against Covid-19 symptoms.

In its CITES submission, the UK government said it wanted to see additional tools provided to customs officers around the world to identify illegal agarwood products, as well as surveys to better understand the distribution of Aquilaria remnants and similar species in nature.

The Department for Environment and Rural Affairs did not respond to a request asking how much the government was willing to pay to help protect Aquilaria trees.

Those with a broad view of the trade say the best way forward is to educate people whose incomes depend on agarwood production on how to sustain the resource as it has been done for centuries.

Creezy Courtoy, former model turned perfume historian and founder of the International Perfume Foundation, which promotes the sustainable production of agarwood, said: “The main attraction of agarwood is its extremely high market value.

“Banning it will increase the value of the product and it will definitely be sold on the black market. Teaching pickers to recognize a mature tree is one solution.

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