Forestry researchers and security experts from the eastern Africa region have urged governments to put stringent measures in place to protect sandalwood trees and to facilitate sustainable harvesting of the trees.
Wycliffe Mauta, a researcher at Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) on Wednesday said that sandalwood trees were in great demand because they are used as medicine and as raw material for the cosmetic industry.
“Smuggling and trafficking of sandalwood is in high demand due to the international market demand,” Mauta said at a webinar meeting in Nairobi, Kenya.
He urged regional governments to put up measures to protect the trees from extinction.
Arthur Owuor, a researcher with Uganda conservation lobby, Our Trees, We Need Answers, said that stringent policies will save sandalwood, shea butter and other tree species from extinction.
He urged governments to raise penalties for offenders to deter trafficking.
“There is an urgent need to provide communities in regions where sandalwood is found with alternative livelihoods to save the trees from demise,” said Bernard Kamondo, a research scientist at Kefri.
The tree species is currently only available in the wild but efforts are ongoing to collect its seeds and plant them.
Kefri is partnering with local communities to work on a propagation project, where they are breeding the specimens of sandalwood to help in producing more seedlings.
“Once complete, the propagated seedlings will be available to farmers for commercial growing,” Mr Kamondo said.
Joyce Kimani, regional coordinator for the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC), said that sandalwood trafficking is a thriving criminal enterprise in the region.
She said the internet has been used to fuel environmental crime and trade of African sandalwood.
“Like all organised crime, sandalwood trade attracts tax evasion, corruption, violent crime, fraud, and money laundering,” Ms Kimani said.
The researchers said that the tree should be valued as a cash crop.
They urged governments to embark on public education to enlighten communities on the importance of protecting endangered tree species.
According to the researchers, smugglers, working with cartels and brokers, have penetrated remote villages in the region, whose local residents have limited knowledge of the trees' commercial value.
African sandalwood was listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a threatened species in 2018.