5 September 2006

Kenya: Saving the Sandalwood Tree

Nairobi — RESIDENTS OF MAJANI village in Laikipia District of Kenya's Rift Valley Province recently noticed that sandalwood, a tree that is known locally as Muthirioni, was being uprooted and taken away at night. Even those in private farms were not being spared.

The residents later learnt it was because of a huge demand for its products - the bark, stem and seeds - in India. Smugglers working with some residents were buying the wood at Ksh3 a kilogramme.

"Suddenly, strange people came enquiring about its availability and where the tree could be found. We had to act quickly to save it from disappearing from the neighbouring Lariak forest," said Norman Gichuhi, the secretary of Lariak Conservancy.

In collaboration with other stakeholders, members of Laikipia Conservancy have been trying to stop the illegal harvesting of the tree.

Sandalwood, which was originally found in India and Australia, is a small evergreen tree that grows up to 4 metres high in Kenya and up to 20 metres in India. It sometimes attains 2.4 metres in diameter. Its bark is dark brown, reddish, dark gray or nearly black in younger trees.

"The bark when boiled produces a dark coloured solution which was used to flavour tea. It was also used together with other herbs for cleaning blood. For others, the boiled product was given to women after giving birth to boost their appetite," remembers Joseph Thuita, a resident of Majani village.

Another elder, Charles Ndun'gu, says; "The wood of sandal tree was sold in many markets in Central Kenya just before independence. It was boiled and used as tea and some people said it lifted their mood."

After Kenya gained independence, sandalwood products were abandoned as better branded and packed products hit the market.

In India, however, the tree's products have attained sacred status. When harvested, the stem, which is known as heartwood, is ground and its steam distilled into oils for use in manufacturing cosmetics, soaps, candles, medicines and perfumes. The wood yields between four and 10 per cent oil when distilled.

THE HEARTWOOD SCENT IS used in sacred ceremonies and to purify holy places. Incense sticks from the wood are burned in temples and houses. The oils and paste is used to treat skin diseases such as infectious sores, ulcers, acne and rashes.

The tree also acts as a disinfectant and a sedative. It is reputed to be useful in improving blood circulation, digestive, respiratory and nervous systems.

Due to the rising demands of sandalwood products, the tree is considered endangered in India, which is why smugglers have found East Africa an easy source of its products.

The Kenyan government has banned harvesting of the tree, but the lure of quick money has forced people to target isolated forests and bushes where it is found.

"We informed the government when local self-help groups reported the disappearance of the tree," said Martin Mwangi, a programme officer at Tree is Life Project, a Nyahururu based NGO working with self-help groups in the district.

He added; "We commend the Laikipia forest office for taking quick action to arrest the smugglers."

Members of the group resolved to work closely with the government and other organisations to stem the smuggling.

"Using members from our user-groups surrounding the Lariak forest, we decided to establish the presence and possible number of the sandalwood trees. It was then that we came across heaps of harvested products hidden away in the thickets awaiting transportation," said Paul Mwangi Nyutu, a member of the Karandi User group.

Lariak Conservancy, which was created by residents, aims at conserving Lariak forest, one of the few remaining in the area. The conservancy is made up of user groups from the five locations in Ol Ng'arua division that surround the forest.

"We are strengthening communication among our members for quick response whenever illegal harvesting of the tree takes place," said Johnson Maina, the organising secretary of the Conservancy.

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