Thiruvananthapuram: Marayur is perhaps the only forest division in the country where security personnel patrol the woods to protect one particular species of tree.
Come rain or shine—or even COVID-19—the officers hit the forest trail at 6pm, patrolling the 15 square kilometer area till 7am. The tight security has a reason: Marayur, the only division with natural sandalwood forest in Kerala, has about 58,000 of the royal, fragrant trees.
A kilogram of sandalwood costs Rs 16,000 in the market, and the largest sandalwood tree in Marayur is valued at about Rs 5 crore. All parts of the tree, except leaves, could be used, and its bark alone could fetch Rs 250 a kilogram.
Despite the felling of trees on assigned deeded land sparking a controversy, the Marayur division, which houses the state’s lone sandalwood depot, is on high alert as always. Still, the division had lost 2,660 sandalwood trees in 2004, and 2,490 trees in 2005. In 2020, 13 trees were stolen; none so far this year.
A 12-foot compound wall secures the periphery of the sandalwood godowns, which is under 24x7 surveillance of CCTVs and guards. The three godowns can hold 200 tonnes of sandalwood.
Grow sandalwood at home
A common misconception is that sandalwood trees belong to the government and they cannot be planted or grown on residential premises.
Clearing the misunderstanding, Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) B Ranjith, in-charge of the Marayur Sandal Division, said sandalwood trees can be planted individually or as plantation on private property. However, the government’s approval is necessary to cut them down.
Explaining, the DFO said the present laws allow the felling of sandalwood trees if they pose a threat to life or property, or for reconstructing the house or compound wall. A memorandum requesting permission should be submitted to the DFO concerned. The Forest Department will prepare a mahazar of the entire tree, including roots, before shifting it to Marayur.
Sandalwood trees felled anywhere in Kerala will be taken to the sandalwood depot at Marayur, where they will be weighed. Unlike other trees, sandalwood is not measured in cubic meter, but in kilograms.
The landowner will get the price of the felled sandalwood if the tree or the land on which it is grown is free of liabilities. If tree is on assigned deeded land, the owner will not be paid.
An official in the rank of Tahsildar or above should certify that the land is not government-owned and the tree is free of liabilities. The landowner will be paid based on the certificate.
Sandalwood are classified into 15 types, and each has a different price. First class sandalwood has a price of Rs 16,000 a kilogram, while second class is Rs 14,000. A tax of 23% will be deducted from the total price. About 20% of a tree weighing 100 kilograms will be first class, while the remaining will be other types.
Before paying the owner, the DFO and the landlord will sign a deal after ensuring that all records are in order. Till 2012, the owner used to be paid only 70% of the tree’s price, while the rest went to the government.
Currently, the owner will be paid the entire amount, minus transportation and other expenses incurred till it is handed over the person who has bought it in auction. The owner will get up to 95% of the tree’s price. The amount is transferred through the treasury.
The depot gets trees from private parties in Marayur also. A sandalwood tree from a private property was auctioned for Rs 34 lakh 1.5 years ago.
Slice of Marayur in Australia
Santalum album is the best among the 30 different varieties of sandalwood seen in Kerala. Australia has begun a plantation there using the saplings procured from Kerala.
Marayaoor now has the most number of sandalwood trees after various diseases destroyed those in Mysore and Tamil Nadu.
Planting of sandalwood saplings have also been progressing in Marayur for the past two years. Sandalwood, being a partial root parasite, cannot survive on its own and needs a host for its nutrition. Hence, the saplings should be planted along with touch-me-nots or casuarina. As many as 4,800 saplings were planted in Marayur last year.
Marayur’s Rs 5 crore sandalwood tree
Superior sandalwood trees, or ‘Plus Trees’, have good heartwood and high content of oil, besides an almost uniform girth. A piece, one meter wide, from such trees should weigh at least five kilograms, and should look good once debarked.
The non-fragrant sapwood did not fetch any money till 2013. After the bark and sapwood were included in the classification, they too became part of the merchandise. Forest Department officials said the largest sandalwood tree at Marayur has an estimated value of about Rs 5 crore.
Sandalwood can be felled during any time of the year. Snags, trees toppled by animals or branches snapped in strong winds can be shifted to the depot by following the set process. The Range Officer and DFO should record the location from where the tree is shifted. How and when to cut the tree, which all parts could be used, etc., too are recorded.
The sandalwood trees at Marayur are numbered every three years. Sandalwood seeds can be bought from the forest department at Marayur.
DFO Ranjith said Karnataka Soaps and Detergents (the manufacturers of Mysore sandal soap) is the major client, purchasing about 98% of the sandalwood from Marayur. Temples in Kerala and outside, too, procure sandalwood from Marayur.
The Forest Development Corporation at Marayur had a sandal oil extracting factory. The 10 millilitre of oil sells for Rs 5,000, but buyers are less due to the high price tag. The factory is now defunct.
Temples in Visakhapatnam and Kolkata, too, buy sandalwood from Marayur. Government has issued a standing order to provide sandalwood to the Sree Krishna Temple at Guruvayur every year for a higher price. Since the temple has enough stock, it has not been procuring sandalwood after 2017.
Temples in Kasaragod, Kannur, Thrissur and Kottayam participate in the sandalwood auction. Information on the auction is passed on via email.
Marayur sandalwood has more oil content. Three kilograms of oil can be extracted from 100 kilograms of sandalwood grown in Karnataka, whereas the same quantity of Marayur sandalwood gives five to eight kgs of sandal oil. A kilogram of sandalwood oil costs Rs 3 lakh.
The climate and soil makes Marayur sandalwood superior. The region received less rainfall and the land is at a gradient. Located below the Anamudi, the highest peak in South India, Marayur is at a height of 580 meters above the sea-level.
The Marayur forest division comprises 64 square kilometers. A forest range till 2005, it now has more facilities, including two ranges and four forest stations, after it was upgraded to a division.