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Aroma Science

Conservation & Environmental Impact of Sandalwood

Unfortunately, because of the high value placed on sandalwood products, especially on sandalwood oil, the sandalwood tree has a long history of exploitation. High demand for the tree’s valuable oil has resulted in over-harvesting, and consequently, the sandalwood tree is one of the most exploited groups of plants across its range (AMJB, article, 2007). Today, many sandalwood species are considered “vulnerable” by the IUCN.


Indian sandalwood (S. album) is one of the most well-known species of sandalwood. In 1998, this species was recognized as “vulnerable” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List, due to disease, fire (to which the sandalwood trees are extremely sensitive), and exploitation through illegal activity.

(Aroma Connection, article, 2008).

Much of sandalwood’s exploitation resulted from a long-standing government restriction; the Indian government’s monopoly of ownership over the country’s sandalwood trees after its designation of sandalwood as a “royal tree,” gave the government complete ownership over the sandalwood trees’ cultivation and trade. In a recent Asian Tribune article, forestry consultant, scientist and sandalwood expert Dr. H S Anantha Padmanabha note that “This restriction imposed on possession, storage, processes and transportation has induced widespread smuggling and illegal trade.”.

(Asian Tribune, article, 2010.)

One of the most recent and infamous Indian sandalwood poachers, known as Veerappan, smuggled approximately 10,000 tons of sandalwood potentially worth $22,000,000, over the course of more than twenty years. Veerappan was also involved in multiple other illegal activities, including poaching and smuggling elephants, kidnapping, and murdering over one hundred government officials and civilians. Because of his extensive information network and connections with other criminals, Veerapan remained extremely difficult to find and arrest.  In 2004, after a tip from one of his associates, Veerapan was killed by the police near the village of Paparapatti in the Dharmapuri region.

(BBC, article, 2004).

Despite the death of the country’s infamous sandalwood poacher, India still struggles with illegal sandalwood activity. In 2011, one of the last large sandalwood trees in Bangalore’s Cubbon Park was chopped down and stolen.

(Mumbai Mirror, article, 2011).

Additionally, between March and May of 2014, three sandalwood trees were cut down to their roots and stolen from the nursery of the historical Balabrooie government guest house.  Instances like this occur often in India, and the government is currently working on taking the necessary steps to protect their native sandalwood trees.

(article, 2014).


Like India, Indonesia also places great value on sandalwood, both culturally and economically, and the country’s native S. album was once a great source of wealth. However, experts from the country’s sandalwood industry state that, “Sandalwood now stands as a symbol of its past, not its future.” The history of sandalwood in Indonesia reflects the general exploitation many sandalwood species have suffered: overharvesting based on poor management, in which resources were used without consideration for the long-term survival of the species.

(SPC, article, 2010).

West Timor, now the poorest region of Indonesia, was once known as the “Sandalwood Island,” and for hundreds of years was a valuable source of sandalwood.  However, European exploitation of this resource led to sandalwood’s decline in Indonesia, and today efforts are slowly being made to revitalize this diminishing resource.

(ABC, source, 2009).


Australian sandalwood (S. spicatum, S. lanceolatum, S. acuminatum, S. murrayanum, and S. obtusifolium) has also undergone a great deal of exploitation.  During the years 1844 to 1929, Australian sandalwood trade boomed.  The country exported sandalwood mainly to China, who imported large quantities of this resource and used the wood in powdered form for incense.  In her article, “The Sandalwood History of Australia: A History” (1990), Pamela Statham states that “Sandalwood actually had a lot to do with Western Australia’s convict decision. It was the scarcity of manpower caused by the 1846-47 sandalwood boom that brought about the pastoralists’ first request for convicts.”  By the 1920’s, the sandalwood industry in Australia suffered from low prices and overharvesting, leading to decreased supplies.

(USDA, source, 1990).

In the past few decades, the Australian government has taken many steps to renew and protect its sandalwood resources, and Australia has become the new center for the global sandalwood industry.

Despite its recent success, however, Australia still faces many challenges in growing and protecting sandalwood trees. Once again, high demand for sandalwood oil has led to illegal activity. Illegal loggers in SUVs and small trucks frequently cut down both wild and commercially grown trees, leaving valuable stumps and roots behind, or rip trees out of the ground before escaping.  Ian Kealley, a regional manager of Western Australia’s Department of Parks and Wildlife, explains,“Most of the criminal activity involves in-and-out, smash-and-grab-type operations…but there have been operations where they’ve used machines—small Bobcats ripping trees out of the ground.” In 2012, police attending to a truck that had jackknifed on a highway found it to be full of sandalwood logs. When authorities returned the next day, this illegal cargo had disappeared from the truck.  According to Australian authorities, incidents similar to this are common, and, like India and Indonesia, Australia is currently working towards better protection of sandalwood.


Like most other countries in the Pacific Islands, Vanuatu has a long history of sandalwood (S. austrocaledonicum) exploitation in order to meet high demands for the product.  In the 1850’s, Europeans based out of Australia started harvesting sandalwood without regulations and exporting it through Sydney to China in exchange for Chinese tea. The exploitation continued as a non-regulated activity until the sandalwood regulation was enacted in 1997. Today Vanuatu is one of the most promising countries involved in the effort to protect and replant sandalwood trees.

(source, 2010).


yasi sandalwood, called asi manogi in Samoan, was once crucial to Samoan culture, growing in abundance in the country’s forests. The sandalwood trade, along with the trade of bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber, a delicacy in many countries) and whaling, experienced huge amounts of industry between the 1860s to the 1900s. Entire Samoan forests of sandalwood were harvested and shipped to Europe, where they were used in furniture making, or exported to China in exchange for spices and tea.

Due to this overharvesting, Samoa’s native sandalwood tree population quickly dwindled.  The last documented Samoan S. yasi was chopped down in 1989. Chief forestry officer in Samoa, Fiu Nimarota, explains that  “A forestry inventory after the cyclones in 1992—which included aerial surveys—revealed that the asi manogi (Samoan sandalwood) was no more, finished, gone.” He adds that in 2005, Samoa’s forestry department introduced the Australian S. spicatum sandalwood in order to revive Samoa’s sandalwood industry, “It is very similar to the Samoan asi manogi. It is also quite invasive. As you can see, the [S. spicatum] is now growing wild on our compound here.”

A few locals claim that they have found native S. yasi sandalwood growing in the wild and have replanted them in their private yards. Inhabitants of Samoa are encouraged to pass on any information they have concerning native Samoan sandalwood sightings on the island to the forestry department

(Savali News, source, 2011).

According to Samoa’s sandalwood report, “Samoa has not established any substantial plantations of sandalwood as yet. However, plans are underway to do so. An NGO has shown keen interest to set up a trading company. The last sighting of sandalwood was in 1991, before it was introduced by SPRIG project in 2003. Another NGO, Women in Business, has shown keen interest in seed propagation and are being assisted by SPC [Secretariat of the Pacific Community]”

(source, 2010).


From the 1790’s to the mid-1830’s, Hawaii experienced several hardships as the demand for sandalwood (S. ellipticum, S. freycinetianum, S. haleakalae and S. paniculatum) rose among Chinese exporters, who called the Hawaiian islands the “Sandalwood Mountains.” As a result of this impossibly high demand for sandalwood and its products, the Hawaiian people, under orders of the Hawaiian government at the time, labored to supply the sandalwood trade. Many of these laborers died due to exhaustion, famine, and disease.  By the mid-1830’s, the Hawaiian sandalwood supply was significantly depleted.(Native Plants Hawaii [NPH], source, 2009).

Mark Hanson, the founder of Hawaiian Restoration Project, explains that today, native Hawaiian sandalwood isn’t endangered—there are still some trees hidden in the forests—but in the inhabited lowlands native sandalwood is a rarity.  “The problem,” Hanson says, “is that native sandalwood is adapted to the native soil, which doesn’t really exist in the lowlands anymore due to human activities such as agriculture and building construction.” Thus, to grow sandalwood successfully, local farmers and private gardeners must take special care of their sandalwood trees and consider it quite an accomplishment when a tree is grown to full size.

(Hawaiian Gardening, source, 2008).

Recently, the United Plant Savers (UpS), separate from the IUCN, took action to protect Hawaii’s native sandalwood species.  The UpS was established in 1994 as a way to bring awareness to the vulnerability of overharvesting of native medicinal plants in the United States and Canada. UpS’s Board of Directors unanimously voted to add all four of Hawaii’s native species of sandalwood to the “At Risk” list:S. freycinetianum, (endangered), S. haleakalea, S.paniculatum and S. ellipticum, as well as two of their variations,S. involutum, and S. pyrularium. Adding these species to the list will hopefully bring into effect regulations that will provide guidelines to the management and protection of these native species.

(UpS, source, 2011).


The native sandalwood of Fiji (S. yasi) is a fundamental part of the local tradition, history, and ecology. Like Vanuatu and many other island countries, exploitation in the1800’s led to the near extinction of the species, and this exploitation continued until the 1980’s. In 2002, the Forestry Department, with funding assistance from SPRIG, began research and development to support the regrowth of sandalwood trees in the country. Fiji’s sandalwood report states that “Action is urgently needed to ensure the conservation of genetic resources of the species, including the development of seed stands in local provenances for use in future propagation and replanting.”.

(SPC, source, 2010).

New Caledonia

As in many other Pacific islands, New Caledonia’s sandalwood trade (S. austrocaledonicum) was very active from 1820 to 1920; between 1828 and 1865, approximately 2000 tons of heartwood were exported to Australia and on to China. During this time, poor management of the forest resulted in the decline of the country’s sandalwood trees. Today, New Caledonia has two private distillation units on Mare Island (Loyalty Islands) and on the Isle of Pines. The country’s sandalwood report states: “During the 2008 inventory on the Isle of Pines, more than 100 trees were recorded and located by GPS. Seeds will be collected from these trees for future plantations.”

(source, 2010).


Today the sandalwood tree still faces many threats from not only humans, in the form of exploitation and poaching, but also natural forces. Sandalwood is especially sensitive to fire and grazing by cattle, deer, and other animals. According to forestry consultant Dr. Anantha Padmanabha, the tree’s growth “under natural forest conditions is very slow due to reasons like fire, grazing, and human intervention.” (source, 2010).

Additionally, the sandalwood tree is susceptible to many different kinds of diseases. S. austrocaledonicum and S. yasi, for example, are susceptible to brown rot root (Phellinus noxious). This disease can be serious, as it has the potential to spread to surrounding trees through root grafting.

(Pacific Island Agroforestry, source, 2006).

Other diseases commonly affecting the sandalwood tree include sandal spike disease, caused by a phytoplasma,  a kind of bacteria. Sandal spike disease has mainly affected S. album in India and is characterized by the tree’s leaves growing stiff and yellow on the branches, acquiring a spike-like appearance.  Eventually, the tree’s leaves and branches dry out and the tree dies within 1-2 years after its first symptoms.

(New Disease Reports, article, 2006).

Due to threats such as disease and human exploitation, many of the world’s sandalwood species today are in need of protection. Below is a list of the sandalwood species currently recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as vulnerable, endangered, or extinct:

  • album (India, Indonesia, China, Philippines)—vulnerable
  • S. haleakalae (Hawaii)—vulnerable
  • S. macgregorii (Papua New Guinea)—endangered
  • S. fernandezianum (Juan Fernández Islands)—extinct

These IUCN statuses are especially troubling, because the sandalwood tree is one of many countries’ most valuable and sacred resources, with a long, rich history of cultural, spiritual, and economic significance dating back to ancient times.  In 2010, the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC) held a symposium, hosted by Vanuatu, to discuss conservation of this precious resource. According to the SPC’s report:

Sandalwood has considerable cultural and economic importance to many communities in a number of countries and territories in the Pacific Islands and Asia. It is for this reason that its conservation is an important issue and deserves added input to ensure its sustainable development and management. Because of its high economic value and suitability to be grown in cultivated situations (agroforestry systems and plantations), sandalwood has the potential to make a significant contribution to rural economies. Because of this value, it is especially crucial to take the necessary steps to conserve this resource.

(source, 2010)

Though the sandalwood conservation movement still has much to accomplish in order to fully protect sandalwood trees, the future of sandalwood cultivation looks more promising than it did a decade or two ago.  Some of these actions for the conservation of sandalwood include international symposiums, changes to individual countries’ government regulations, and the promotion of sandalwood cultivation among private landowners and small farmers.

Since realizing how urgent the sandalwood’s situation was, the sandalwood community has come together in several international symposiums, highlighting the need for separate countries to collaborate on sandalwood conservation. These symposiums include the 2010 conference hosted in Vanuatu held by the SPC and the 2012 International Sandalwood Symposium (ISS) hosted in Hawaii.  Regarding its recent symposium, the ISS reports:

With over 100 participants from 8 countries, [the ISS] brought together a diverse international group of participants interested in the scientific research, conservation, ethnobotany, commercialization, and other aspects of sandalwood- from the world’s leading experts to students, landowners, land managers, business people, and the general public. The 2nd International Sandalwood Symposium is planned for 2016.

(International Sandalwood Foundation, link, 2013)

In addition to these international symposiums, the governments of multiple countries are also taking individual steps to protect their natural sandalwood resources.  In Australia, for example, sandalwood poaching has become so urgent that the Western Australia’s lawmakers are considering harsher penalties and increasing resources in order to combat this illegal activity.  Though Australia’s vast country makes it difficult to catch poachers, sandalwood poaching is now categorized with other serious illegal exports of Western Australian,
such as rare reptiles and birds, as the biggest priority for Parks and Wildlife rangers.

Australia’s sandalwood corporations are also taking measure to protect their industry—the TFS Corporation says it is building fences and installing cameras around its plantations in Western Australia’s Ord River region. Despite these measures, Australia still has a long way to go in order to fully protect its sandalwood. Lawmakers and members of the sandalwood industry such as TFS are clear that even more precautions need to be taken in the next several years. Without tougher sentences for sandalwood poaching, this kind of illegal activity is likely “to be an industry of choice for organized criminals, now and into the next decade,” Murray Smalpage, regional police commander of Western Australia, said.

(WSJ, article, 2013).

Like Australia, India’s government is also changing its laws in order to better protect the country’s sandalwood trees. A decade ago, realizing that the sandalwood industry was perishing, the government relaxed some of its regulations on full government ownership of sandalwood trees, a law which originated in the 1790s. It has also asked India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests to enact policies on sandalwood conservation. India’s Supreme Court directed states to immediately close down all unlicensed sandalwood oil factories still functioning and take effective measures for proper supervision of licensed ones. (India Times, article 2012).

Because of these new government actions, a new wave of young and business-minded independent farmers in India have shown a renewed interest in cultivating sandalwood.  This trend looks promising. The India Times states: “Rough estimates suggest that well over 1,000 acres of land spread across areas such as Alair, Vikarabad and Zaheerabad, all located within 100 km from the city, have been brought under this new-age plantation activity that until a few years ago was restricted to dedicated zones within Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.” Unless India continues to take aggressive steps to conserve its natural sandalwood resources, however, the tree’s IUCN status of “vulnerable” could remain unchanged. While India’s wave of young farmers seems promising, many environmental experts “fear that such long-term business models might fizzle out before the buyers make any money.”

(source, 2013).

Experts in the sandalwood industry also explain that India currently allows sandalwood to be sold to a limited number of government agencies, thus making sandalwood unavailable to the open market—“allowing private companies to buy sandalwood and extract sandalwood oil may give a boost to this floundering industry.”

(source, 2012).

While extensive studies on native sandalwood trees in India have led to a relatively clear understanding of the sandalwood’s status in the country, the sandalwood’s standing in Indonesia is less clear. Indonesia’s sandalwood report states:

The main reason why previous attempts at the sustainable utilization of this species in West Timor have failed because of the extension of state control over this resource. This control is enforced through the implementation of several policies that disadvantage the people of West Timor and leave few opportunities for them to be involved in and benefit from sandalwood management. A significantly larger share of the benefits is taken by the government.

(SPC, source, 2010).

Indonesia’s sandalwood report adds that the first action should be to enact a complete inventory of the remaining sandalwood in West Timor and that “identification and conservation of seed sources should be of highest priority.”  Indonesia’s report also calls for a working plan incorporating management with sustainable harvesting, replanting, and local nurseries in each district of West Timor.

(SPC, source, 2010).

Vanuatu currently has one of the most promising sandalwood conservation movements.  In 2008, the country’s Department of Forests conducted an inventory of the wild sandalwood trees in Erromango, Efate (Moso Island) and Malakula. The inventory report indicated that these areas have a “very limited stock of mature sandalwood in the wild.” Based on this report, Vanuatu’s sandalwood industry concluded that it cannot rely on wild sandalwood for its survival in the future, and consequently, steps to boost sandalwood cultivation on small farms are crucial.

The sandalwood industry in Vanuatu is now beginning to flourish in the hands of local communities and farmers. After the Department of Forests began to promote sandalwood cultivation among the locals through distributing information and hosting workshops, many individuals have started to create their own sandalwood nurseries. Vanuatu’s sandalwood report adds:

It is important to note that these programs have been very effective during the course of 2009, in which the Department of Forests has conducted 10 workshops on nursery construction and management techniques, including seed propagation on 10 islands in Vanuatu. The training also included setting up of 10 community and private forestry nurseries and instruction on woodlot management techniques, some of which are very specific to sandalwood. These activities include production and supply of videos, posters, and leaflets. (SPC, source, 2010)

The main concern for sandalwood cultivation in Vanuatu is whether trees planted in non-native locations around the country will still produce high-quality heartwood. The difficulty of obtaining high-quality seeds also remains a major challenge to Vanuatu’s planting programs. In order to hopefully address this issue, the Department of Forests is attempting to establish grafted seed orchards on some islands. The country’s report explains that “the primary objective of this program is to provide high-quality seed sources for private and community planting programs.”

(SPC, article, 2010)

Contrasting Vanuatu’s recent success in sandalwood conservation and cultivation, there are still several Pacific Island countries, including Niue and Tonga, who need concrete action in order to protect their sandalwood natural resources. In Niue, for example, very little is known of the country’s wild growing sandalwood. A natural stand covering less than 1 sq. km exists with fewer than 100 trees, and there have been unconfirmed sightings of other wild sandalwoods.  The country’s sandalwood report recommends enacting a complete inventory of its sandalwood tree population.

Similarly, in Tonga, the growth of sandalwoods is sporadic, ranging from very common on the island of ‘Eua to very rare in the island of Tongatapu’s coastal and lowland forests.  Tonga’s country report states that research and development of sandalwood cultivation and conservation have been limited, adding that the present work from other countries such as Vanuatu will help to fill this gap. Tonga hopes to provide information on sandalwood for its rural communities and other resource developers in order to better protect its natural sandalwood resources.

(SPC, source, 2010).

In addition to government programs such as Vanuatu’s efforts, many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are involved in sandalwood conservation and cultivation. In Indonesia, for example, local NGOs are working with forestry agencies such as the Provincial Forestry Offices and the Forestry Research and Development Centre in implementing sandalwood rehabilitation programs. NGOs are also working with the Indonesian Science Institute (LIPI) to develop technology suitable for sandalwood cultivation; NGO involvement in these actions helps support the inclusion of local communities in sandalwood conservation.

(article, 2010).

Similarly, an essential step in Vanuatu’s process of sandalwood conservation has been consultation with key stakeholders, including village communities, industry, and NGOs.

(FAO, source)

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) is taking actions to protect sandalwood as well.  CITES is “an international agreement between governments” formed in order to ensure that the international trade of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. CITES was created in 1963 as a result of a resolution adopted at a meeting of the IUCN, the conservation organization that classifies the certain species of sandalwood as “vulnerable” or “endangered”.

Currently, Pterocarpus santalinus (red sandalwood) and Osyris lanceolata (East African sandalwood), species which are separate from and often traded as derivatives of the Santalum species, are listed under CITES appendices. These species are listed in Appendix II, which the website describes as, “not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.” CITES adds that the species classified under Appendix II are subject to extra controls and precautions when traded internationally, requiring regulations such as export permits and restrictions on shipping in order to better protect them in their vulnerable states. None of the Santalum species are currently listed under CITES’ appendices.