Agarwood: The natural treasure worth more than gold whose heady scent is driving it towards extinction
hen it comes to lucrative – yet destructive – relationships in nature, it is hard to beat that between the fusarium fungus and Aquilaria trees. The tropical trees are virtually worthless when healthy but once fusarium worms its way into the timber the result is one of the world’s most sought-after commodities – agarwood.
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Valued and coveted for more than a millennium, agarwood is the dark, highly resinous timber produced at the heart of Aquilaria trees as a response to infection in the wild by fusarium and other moulds. But while it is a defence mechanism that works well against fungal parasites, it is the tragedy of Aquilaria that in repelling one threat it attracts an altogether more lethal one in the shape of human beings and their desire for nature’s treasures.
Gram for gram, agarwood, also known as oud and prized for its heady scent used for centuries in incense, is the most valuable wildlife commodity on the planet – worth up to 40 times more than gold. It is at the centre of a legal trade in agarwood products, ranging from wood chips to essential oils, worth some £7bn a year, alongside which sits a booming illicit trade largely based on illegal harvesting of trees in the wild.
Demand for agarwood has been boosted in recent years by its rising popularity as an ingredient in perfumes and the suggestion – as yet scientifically unproven – that it can be an effective treatment against Covid-19.
Later this month an summit of countries signed up to the United Nations’ CITES treaty on endangered species will hear a warning from the UK government that such is the burgeoning demand for agarwood, several populations of Aquilaria species are threatened with extinction in the wild, and urgent action is needed to help tighten customs controls against a burgeoning trade in illegal timber.
Some 13 different species of Aquilaria – 65 per cent of the total – are now considered threatened, four of them critically so.
An investigation by i has established that the UK Border Force, which enforces CITES regulations banning the trade in endangered species, has in the last three years seized nearly 170 consignments of medicinal or health products containing agarwood.
This is in addition to 50 unlicensed shipments of agarwood chippings – worth up to $25,000 (£22,000) a kilo – seized last year at Heathrow Airport and other UK hubs destined for the Arabian Gulf, where the perfumed wood is particularly sought-after.
A UK Government document submitted to the CITES summit in Panama later this month, seen by i, warns that the illegal harvesting of and trade in agarwood is a “serious issue” which threatens devastation of the dwindling numbers of wild Aquilaria trees across south-east Asia and parts of the Pacific.
Noting a “continuing decline” of Aquilaria populations, the report states: “Due to the high value of agarwood, buyers are actively looking for 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 from wild trees can involve indiscriminately cutting down trees as external signs a tree has produced agarwood, or the quality of agarwood, are not always visible until cut.”
The international trade in agarwood dates back to at least the Greek and Roman eras, when exchanges in aromatic woods with merchants in India and China are recorded, and trade had been managed sustainably for centuries.
Only the resinous heartwood of the tree that grows in response to the fungal infection counts as “oud” or agarwood. In places such as Malaysia and Indonesia, forest communities have grown skilled at managing their resource sustainably. The Dayaks in Indonesia can pinpoint agarwood by the different sounds produced when knocking the trunk, allowing the resinous growth to be cut out while leaving the rest of the tree to grow.
A large number agarwood-producing countries, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Malaysia, have responded to the threat of over-harvesting in recent years by setting up farmed Aquilaria plantations. The trees are inoculated with fungi such as fusarium to provoke the growth of agarwood before being harvested up to 24 months later.
But aficionados tend to consider the product from cultivated trees to be inferior to the wild-sourced version. And with demand outstripping supply, the result is an ability to command vast prices for such a rare and treasured resource with religious uses in Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
The value of the global trade in agarwood and derived products is currently put at $6bn-$8bn (£5.3bn-£7.1bn) each year.
While the highest-quality raw chippings can fetch vast sums, it is nothing compared to the price of the essential oil – known in Arabic as “dahn al oud” or “fat of oud” – extracted from the wood. The purest oil costs as much as £1,700 per millilitre – some 30 to 40 times the equivalent weight of gold.
Conservation experts warn there has been a recent widening of interest in agarwood as an ingredient in high-end beauty products. James Compton, who has studied the trade for UK-based charity TRAFFIC, said: “The major change in end-use products since the early 2000s is the rising 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 perfumiers, though there is no suggestion of wrongdoing – manufacturers rely on either synthetic chemical facsimiles of the active ingredients in oud, or essential oil from sustainable plantations.
But the premium on all things related to oud is resulting in ever-increasing demand for agarwood amid what Mr Compton says is a proliferation of low-quality, adulterated or faked products from other tree species as others seek to cash in.
Illegally sourced agarwood in the form of chips or oils tends to be sent in postal packages or air freight, leading customs bodies like the UK Border Force to focus on airports in their attempts crack down on the trade.
One law enforcement source told i: “The trade in wildlife goods is driven by rarity and reputation. The rarer the animal or plant, the higher the price. The higher the reputation, whether it be the fictions that surround the medicinal qualities of rhino horn or the status conferred by having a vial of pure agarwood oil, the more it is in demand.
“Together these things create an opportunity for fraudsters and criminals to smuggle or fake the product in demand. Agarwood is increasingly caught in that sort of dynamic.”
Another source of pressure on Aquilaria is the recent demand for agarwood in places including China as a supposed treatment for Covid-19. TRAFFIC said agarwood was one of several plant products which had seen soaring demand amid global interest in potential herbal remedies during the pandemic, in particular China where one species of Aquilaria, classified by CITES as vulnerable, is among 125 plant species listed by the authorities as ingredients for traditional medicines to treat coronavirus
Sources told i that powdered agarwood and products containing essential oil had been offered for sale in China and elsewhere during the pandemic despite scant evidence that they offered any clinical benefit against the symptoms of Covid-19.
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 remaining Aquilaria and similar species in the wild.
The Department for Environment and Rural Affairs did not respond to a request asking how much the Government was prepared to pay to help protect Aquilaria trees.
Those with an overview of the trade argue that the best way forward is educating the people whose incomes rely on agarwood production in how to sustain the resource as had been done for centuries.
Creezy Courtoy, a former model turned perfume historian and founder of the International Perfume Foundation, which promotes sustainable agarwood production, said: “The main attraction of agarwood is its extremely high market value.
“Forbidding it will raise the value of the product and it will for sure be sold on the black market. Teaching harvesters to recognise a mature tree is a solution.”
Reference: Cahal Milmo
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