How Australia is creating a long-term sustainable future for one of the world’s most precious essential oils - sandalwood.

How Australia is creating a long-term sustainable future for one of the world’s most precious essential oils - sandalwood.

Excessive harvesting of sandalwood trees from the wild without a strategy for replanting has substantially reduced the availability of sandalwood in India. This has resulted in global shortages and soaring market prices of Santalum album.
As a result of the declining levels of Santalum album in the wild, the tree was given vulnerable status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1998.
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Excessive harvesting of sandalwood trees from the wild without a strategy for replanting has substantially reduced the availability of sandalwood in India. This has resulted in global shortages and soaring market prices of Santalum album.
As a result of the declining levels of Santalum album in the wild, the tree was given vulnerable status by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1998.

Despite much criticism of the viability and sustainability of Santalum spicatum from Australia, the native sandalwood growing in Western Australia now supplies about half of the world’s legal sandalwood.1
A newer and even more exciting sandalwood industry, based on cultivating Indian sandalwood, is now emerging in the fertile lands of the Ord River Irrigation Area in northern Western Australia. No other country has embarked on a significant program of sandalwood cultivation, and for many reasons, none are likely to do so in the near future.

This paper examines the current status of sandalwood, we investigate the factors that lead to the global demise of sandalwood, and we discuss the strategies taken by Australian sandalwood producers to ensure that we have a strong and sustainable future for this precious and most sacred essential oil.

Botany and origins

The Santalum species belongs to the Santalaceae family. There are about 16-20 species spread throughout India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and the Pacific Islands.2
All sandalwoods are classified as a hemi-parasitic tree. In order to survive, the roots of the sandalwood tree must attach themselves to the roots of other trees to obtain their nutrients. However, sandalwood tree will not kill its host tree.2
There are six species of sandalwood that are commercially harvested in international markets;2

S. album (Native to India and Indonesia and now cultivated in Australia)
S. yasi (Native to Fiji and Tonga)
S. austrocaledonium (Native to New Caledonia & Vanuatu)
S. macgregorii (Native to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia)
S. spicatum (Native to Western Australia)
S.lanceolatum (Native to Queensland).

In this discussion we will focus on S. album and S. spicatum.

Indian Sandalwood

The most important commercial species is S. album from India. It is often referred to as East Indian sandalwood. S. albumis a medium-sized tree (12-15m) that reaches maturity at 40-50 years old. The branches, bark and sapwood are odourless and as mentioned previously, the essential oil is found in the heartwood and roots. It is native to and cultivated in the tropical regions of Asia such as India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia and Northern Australia.2
S. album is indigenous to India and its distribution is limited to an area of about 9,600 km2, mostly in the deciduous forest of the Deccan region of the Indian peninsula. The southern states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu together account for more than 90% of the natural population of S. album in India.21

Australian Sandalwoods

Australia is home to several native species of sandalwood. The two Australian native species of commercial interest are S. spicatum and S. lanceolatum. 

Santalum spicatum growing in the wild in Western Australia.

Santalum spicatum

S. spicatum commonly referred to as Western Australian sandalwood is typically a small evergreen tree, 3-8 metres in height. The ground under wild trees is littered with seeds, known as quandong nuts and used by Australian Aborigines to alleviate coughs and colds.2

It occurs in the drier inland regions of Western and South Australia. It generally grows in a wide range of soils and prefers level country, but it can be seen growing on hillsides. The tree’s parasitic habit requires it to grow in association with other trees and scrubs. The two most common local hosts are Acacia acuminata Benth. and A. aneura F. Muell.2

Santalum lanceolatum

Santalum lanceolatum, commonly known as Queensland sandalwood grows extensively in the Cape York Peninsula, throughout Queensland to New South Wales and parts of Victoria. S. lanceolatum has been harvested from the Cape York Peninsula region since about 1865.3

The wood is obtained from harvesters who have been issued a protected plant harvesting license from the Queensland government, allowing them to monitor the timber that is harvested. The license stipulates strict quotas regarding the amount of harvestable timber and the diameter of the tree must be greater than 12cm in diameter.3

In Queensland, the level of harvesting from Crown lands is 300 tonnes per year for 10 years. The Queensland Nature Conservation Act restricts the level of annual harvest to 500 tonnes from Crown lands and 50 tonnes from freehold land. Unauthorised removal has been a problem in the past and still occurs.1

Another Australian oil often incorrectly referred to as sandalwood is distilled from the wood of Eremophila mitchellii. This is often referred to as Buddha wood or Bastard sandalwood. It is considered one of the strongest scented woods in Australia. It occurs in the arid regions of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia. The tree is commonly confused with S. lanceolatum. The oil is dark in colour and has valuable fixative properties. Its main constituents are three related sesquiterpene ketones, eremophilone being the most important.2

Pacific Islands Sandalwoods

There are several sources of good quality sandalwood from the Pacific region. Fiji and Tonga produce S. yasi and New Caledonia and Vanuatu produce S. austrocaledonicum.

A management program has also been introduced in the Pacific region to ensure the long-term sustainability of sandalwood. In Vanuatu, all the forests are owned by custom landowners. These forests play an important part in the lives of the people where sandalwood has been harvested and traded for centuries. The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) has supported research into the growth and marketing of sandalwood in Vanuatu. Its goal is to establish a plantation-based sandalwood industry to help establish a long-term sustainable sandalwood industry.4


Method of extraction

Sandalwood oils are obtained by steam distillation of powdered wood chips from the heartwood of the tree. The sandalwood tree must be over 30 years old before the wood is suitable for distillation. Preparing the wood for distillation is difficult as three steps are required - sawing or cleaving, chopping and grinding.5

Arctander explains that the distillation also required considerable experience, many hours of operation per batch and large amounts of steam. For this reason, he explains that it was understandable that the cultivation of the tree has remained an Indian tradition for thousands of years.5
The essential oil yield from old mature S. album trees (greater than 30 years) ranges from 6–7%. The oil content from S. spicatum is only 2% while the oil content of S. lanceolatum is about 2-3%.2

Chana reported that the oil content of the heartwood of 10-year-old sandalwood trees was 0.9% as compared to 30-year old trees which possessed 4% oil. It was also noted that the total santalols, santalyl acetate and santalenes in the oil produced from the 30-year-old heartwood were much higher.6

Gowda et al. state that 12 to 15-year old plantations possess an oil content of between 3.5-4% and is of a similar quality of that of 30-year old trees. The authors suggest that it would be economically more viable for farmers to establish sandalwood plantations if they could wait 15 years to generate a good economic return.7

The oil is contained primarily in the heartwood and the larger roots. Therefore, the rate of the heartwood formation is of utmost importance. Trees growing in favourable conditions show heartwood development at around 10 years of age. Heartwood formation accelerates rapidly from 20 years and it is at its prime in trees 30 to 60 years old. According to Weiss the proportion of heartwood to outer wood and bark is 65-85% on healthy mature trees. 2

The sapwood and heartwood are normally sharply demarcated. The sapwood is unscented, white to whitish yellow and the heartwood is scented and light yellowish-brown when freshly cut changing on exposure and age to a dark reddish brown.2
Weiss states that the trees growing on dry rocky ground in India produce a harder wood with a higher oil content than trees growing on more fertile soils whose heartwood is softer with a lower oil content. 2

When S. spicatum essential oil first became available it was produced by a combination of solvent extraction and steam distillation; however, nowadays all S. spicatum oil is now extracted by steam distillation.

Organoleptic characteristics

Santalum album oil is described as a pale yellow to yellow, viscous liquid having an extremely soft, sweet-woody and almost animal-balsamic, milky and nutty odour, presenting little or no particular top note, and remaining uniform for a considerable length of time due to its outstanding tenacity.5

Western Australian sandalwood is described as having a soft, woody, extremely tenacious and somewhat balsamic aroma. The top note is distinctly different from that of the East Indian sandalwood oil, with a rather dry-bitter slightly resinous note similar to myrrh oil, although not as pronounced. On drying out the odour slowly becomes very similar to the East Indian sandalwood.5

S. austrocaledonicum has a soft, warm, sweet, rich balsamic woody aroma.

S. lanceolatum is described as having a light, fresh, woody aroma with a gentle hint of honey and spice. 2

Weiss states that the characteristic scent is due to the various santalols and santalenes, especially epi-β-santalol and trans-β-santalol. The quality of sandalwood oil is often judged on its total alcohol content as santalol. Fresh oil often has a lower level of santalol to santalyl acetate and santalene, but this ratio often reverses with age. 2

It is interesting that Weiss states that redistilled Santalum spicatum oil is very similar in odour to East Indian sandalwood oil. He states that the dendrolasin content is responsible for the odour difference. He also suggests that redistilled S.spicatum can directly replace East Indian sandalwood in perfumes, cosmetics and scented soaps.2

History and traditional uses

Sandalwood’s common name derives from Sanskrit chandana.2 Sandalwood is a highly prized aromatic wood that is well known for its oil and the wood has religious and cultural significance in Asian cultures and in Buddhism. Sandalwood oil is extracted from the heartwood of the tree. Once the oil has been distilled from the timber, the sandalwood chips are ground into powder to produce incense.8

Indian sandalwood (Santalum album) is traditionally considered the most valuable variety of sandalwood and the most sought after in the industry due to its aroma and oil yield.8 For more than 5,000 years, India has been the traditional leader of sandalwood oil production for perfumery and pharmaceuticals. The oil and the wood are highly esteemed by people belonging to the three major religions of the world – Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.8

The wood is recommended for worshipping Shiva. Goddess Lakshmi is believed to reside in the sandalwood tree. The Egyptians imported the wood and used it in medicine, for embalming the dead and in ritual burnings to worship the gods.8
It is customary in some communities among the Hindus to place a piece of sandalwood in the funeral pyre. The beige-coloured paste of sandalwood is applied to the forehead and other body parts or devotees of god Krishna and for ritual bathing of Hindu gods.8

Holmes states that sandalwood is one of only a few aromatic plants used by humankind that has become imprinted into our psycho-biological DNA and our spiritual mythologies. He considers sandalwood as one of Asia’s greatest gifts to humankind and says that the scent of sandalwood can help us explore the oriental soul that we find at once alluring, awesome and irresistible.9

While we have come to think of sandalwood for its precious oil, historically it was used for its wood. The closely grained, fine pale yellow wood is perfect for the production of high quality carved objects. It is also long lasting and termite-resistant. It has been described as the ‘botanical ivory’ of Asia.9

Holmes explains that wherever Buddhism spread throughout Asia, sandalwood followed. The burning of incense sticks made from finely ground sandalwood is an example of how this precious wood has always been the aromatic foundation of Buddhist practice.9

Use in traditional medicine

Sandalwood oil is traditionally used in Ayurvedic, Chinese and Tibetan medical systems. It is used in the treatment of conditions such as the common cold, bronchitis, fever, dysentery, piles, scabies, infection of the urinary tract, inflammation of the mouth and pharynx, liver and gallbladder complaints, expectorant, stimulant, carminative, digestive and a muscle relaxant. Venous and lymphatic stasis such as varicose veins and swollen lymph nodes of the lymphatic system were also traditionally treated with sandalwood oil.8,10

Sandalwood was rarely mentioned in medieval European herbals. It was not until the eighteenth century when the Europeans became established in India that sandalwood became well known and highly prized in Europe.2 It was recommended for the treatment of gonorrhoea and urinary tract infections.11

The German Commission E Monographs recommend 1-1.5g of sandalwood oil for the supportive treatment of urinary tract infections.12

According to Lassak, author of Australian Medicinal Plants, S. lanceolatum is commonly known as plumbush. In Australia, a decoction of the leaves and bark were traditionally drunk as a purgative. The leaves were used for boils, sores and gonorrhoea. An infusion was made from the mashed roots and the liquid applied topically for rheumatism and to relieve itching.13

Guenther states that during the early part of the twentieth century a large portion of sandalwood oil produced in the world was used for medicinal purposes, particularly for the treatment of certain diseases such as gonorrhoea, however by the 1950s the situation has entirely changed with only 10% of the oil being used for medicinal purposes.14

Subtle aromatherapy

Any presentation on sandalwood cannot be complete without a discussion on the oil’s important role in subtle aromatherapy.

Holmes provides us with an insightful description of sandalwood that helps us understand why it has always been and always will be one of the most precious aromatic gifts to humankind. He explains that sandalwood connects us with the value of being. We can experience this in the presence of certain Tibetan and Indian masters who have developed their actual being more than their intellectual knowledge. Unlike other earthly fragrances, sandalwood works gently and with compassion. It grounds us in a world of sensuous unaffected beauty, like that experienced after a deep meditation or love experience. Sandalwood helps us experience the simplicity and purity of the physical world and experience the immanence of the spirit in the physical world.9

Sandalwood helps us reflect internally, balancing the one-sided Western emphasis on the external world. It helps connect us with our soul and our intrinsic wisdom. Sandalwood naturally guides us into a meditation that integrates our body, mind and soul.9

Sandalwood in perfumery

The soft, sweet, woody, balsamic aroma of sandalwood makes it one of the most beautiful oils to blend with. It does not impart a strong aroma, however, it leaves you with a very long lasting scent and it has the ability to enhance the other oils used. It imparts such a delicate, ethereal, balance, warmth and harmony to all blends.

Perfumer, Roja Dove best explains the challenges of creating perfumes with sandalwood;19

“It is a difficult material to balance in a creation, as it plays a trick with one’s nose – at one moment it is there and then it disappears.”

According to Michael Edwards’ research, about 47% of all perfumes created since 1790 contain sandalwood notes. In perfumery both S. spicatum and S. album are used. Both have different aromatic profiles. Often S. spicatum is considered more raw, earthy and sharp. Steve Claisse, VP senior perfumer at Takasago, describes Australian sandalwood as “earthier and coarser.”20

The perfume industry tends to consider sandalwood as a fixative. However, the high price of sandalwood now means that perfumers use it much more carefully.

There are many synthetic ingredients that are reminiscent of sandalwood; however, most perfumers agree that the woody aroma chemicals that attempt to mimic the scent of sandalwood do not have the complexity, richness and depth of character like that of real sandalwood.

Typical chemical composition

The typical chemical profiles of the four main commercially available sandalwood oils are as follows:15

Constituent S. album(Australian)

S. Spicatum
green wood

S. Spicatum
dead wood
S. lanceolatum S. austrocaledonicum
α-santalene 0.75 1.29 0.75 0.32 0.38
Trans-α–bergamotene 0.165 0.46 0.11 0.05 0.07
Epi-β-santalene 0.798 - 0.09 0.01 0.32
 Trans-β–farnesene   -   0.70  -  -  0.07
 β–santalene  1.21  1.06  0.25  0.17  0.31
 γ-curcumene  0.12  0.15  1.05  0.54  0.22
 AR-curcumene  0.19  0.6  1.41  0.58  0.25
 β–bisabolene  0.12  0.42  1.11  1.72  0.22
 β–curcumene  0.21  1.15  1.83  1.00  0.45
Nerolidol 0.21 -  1.22 1.26 -
Trans-nerolidol - 2.24 -  - 0.17
Dendrolasin 0.04 2.39 0.77 0.84 0.12
Epi-β–bisabolol 0.23 3.86 - - 2.19
 β–bisabolol  0.55  -  0.68  0.49  0.70
 cis-α –santalol  44.49  17.38  1.78  1.03  25.41 
 b-sinensal   1.61   -   -  1.47   -
 Epi-α–bisabolol  0.28  5.41  25.01  2.62  0.60
 Cis-α-trans-bergamotol  5.85  3.53  0.22   -   5.54
 Cis-epi-β–santalol  3.64  1.22  0.18  0.10  1.88
 Epi-α–santalol  0.26  -  0.35  1.25   -
Cis-β-santalol 18.6 4.81 0.31 0.10 12.04
Cis-nuciferol , Cis-γ-curumen-12-ol  4.18 15.98 13.59 20.10 20.72
Trans-farnesol  - 12.10 0.62 3.70 -
Trans-β–santalol 0.36  - 1.95 0.83 0.16
Cis-β-curumen-12-ol 1.59 8.62 5.95 11.86 8.65
Cis-lanceol 3.018 2.01 5.73 26.57 9.37
α–sinensal 0.49  - 1.28 4.52 -
α -bisabolol acetate - - 0.77 0.17 -
α -bergamotol acetate 0.29  - 0.39 1.39 -

ISO 3518 for S. album essential oil states that the oil should have z-α-santalol (41.0 – 55.0%) and z-β-santalol (16.05 – 24.0%).16

The major constituent of the oil, α-santalol is responsible for the most biological activities of sandalwood oil. The santalols are known to add to the fine woody notes of East Indian sandalwood.2,10

The age at which the trees are harvested also determines the oil composition;2

10-year old trees - contain santalol (72-83%), santalyl acetate (4.5-6.5%) and santalene (3.6-7.3%)
30-year old trees - contain santalol (86-91%), santalyl acetate (2.6- 3.4%) and santalene (1.3- 2.9%)

The essential oil from S. spicatum contains less santalols than S. album, however, it also contains farnesol and nuciferols that are said to enhance the anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties of the oil.17

Adulteration of sandalwood

Sandalwood oil is regularly adulterated; however, Guenther stated that present specifications of the various pharmacopoeias make it quite difficult to adulterate East Indian sandalwood oil to any considerable extent. He explains that oils of cedarwood, guaiacwood, West Indian, Western Australian and South African sandalwood oils along with oils from copaiba balsam and gurjun balsam have been used for this purpose.14

Guenther explains that the addition of cedarwood oil or gurjun balsam oil increases optical rotation and decreases the specific gravity and solubility of the sandalwood oil. Copaiba balsam acts similarly except that it usually decreases the rotation slightly. West Australian sandalwood oil has a lower ester number after acetylation and poorer solubility than East Indian sandalwood oil. 14

For pharmaceutical purposes Arctander states that sandalwood oil is usually rectified.5
The oil has often been diluted with non-odorous materials such as polyethylene glycol, castor oil, coconut oil, and DEHP.18

The demise of Sandalwood

Rashkow provides us with a detailed account of the demise of the sandalwood industry in India. He argues that while both early nineteenth-century capitalist commodification and late nineteenth -century bureaucratic forestry department management were detrimental to the demise of the tree’s population in southern India, it was not until postcolonial mismanagement by state-run sandalwood oil industry in the 1950s-70s that the species came to the brink of extinction.22

I had always wondered how it was possible for sandalwood to have been maintained sustainably for over 2,000 years prior to English colonisation. Rashkow explains that pre-colonial conservation measures had always been in place which effectively managed sandalwood trees. He quotes Buchanan, who in 1894, described how villages appointed a keeper of the forest. His role was to manage all the resources of the forest, including sandalwood tree. In one area, the tradition was to harvest the sandalwood once in every twelve years.22

In the eighteenth century, Tipu Sultan of Mysore established the first state monopoly over all sandalwood. The British East India Company invasion of Mysore was motivated by the need to control one of Mysore’s most prized commodities – sandalwood.22

Rashkow states that the British monopolised the sandalwood trade in southern India and used it to balance their accounts in China. They would overexploit the species as far as the market would allow. He explains that this represented a significant departure from the pre-colonial period where local elites were happy to trade with outside powers, but with eyes thoroughly fixed on the domestic market.22

He also describes the demise of sandalwood in the Pacific islands:22

In contrast to regions such as southern India that had long been involved in world trade, much of the Pacific was introduced to the international market by sandalwood traders who moved from one island to the next harvesting the tree until there was no more left to harvest. India and Timor had been the sole suppliers of sandalwood to the world market until the late eighteenth century. While there had long been a market for S. album, at the end of the eighteenth century European, American and Australian merchants tried to take control of the sandalwood trade by selling newly discovered Pacific species of sandalwood to China. By the mid-nineteenth century these sandalwood traders had systematically stripped most of the Pacific islands of this precious tree. Time and again sandalwood species were exploited until they went locally extinct, or nearly so, often with massive ecological damage, not to mention the political and cultural toll on the islands. 

In Hawaii, the sandalwood trade collapsed by 1928, only decades after it had begun. The first shipwrecked Europeans to land on Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu, called it “sandalwood island”. The sandalwood trade collapsed there within 20 years of its discovery. In the Marquesas, the British and Americans decimated sandalwood in just three years, between 1814 and 1816. The same story occurred with S. austrocaledonicum in Vanuatu.22

Rashkow states that while European trades decimated sandalwood groves across the Pacific islands in a very short time span between the 1770s and the collapse of trade in the 1830s, southern India’s sandalwood stocks continued to provide the international market without interruption into the 1950s.22

Rashkow argues that one of the factors leading to the demise of sandalwood in India was the failure of “scientific” forestry.22

All early attempts to cultivate sandalwood proved to be complete failures. Before the first quarter of the twentieth century, European foresters could not work out how to grow sandalwood effectively. The main reason is that sandalwood is a hemi-parasite. John Scott, curator of the Royal Botanical Garden in Calcutta, discovered this back in 1871; however, it was never taken seriously.22

Rashkow states that if the British plantation managers had studied how villagers cultivated sandalwood they could have solved the problem sooner. It was also not known at the time that only the sandalwood heartwood and roots develop the essential oil and trees only begin to develop the oil in significant quantities after about thirty years. 22

The second major natural problem facing southern India’s sandalwood was spike disease. At the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century spike disease was the number one killer of trees. Even today the mystery of spike disease has not been solved and scientific investigation is ongoing to find a cure. 22

However, Rashkow states that the biggest demise facing sandalwood oil came in the twentieth century. He explains that during World War I, vast amounts of sandalwood were stockpiled in Mysore because the perfumeries in France had stopped production and it was illegal to export to German perfumeries. 22

In 1915, the Government Sandalwood Oil Factory was built in Mysore. In 1918, the Government Soap Factory was built. Rashkow states; 22

Traditionally burned in incense and pressed into attars and oils, sandalwood had always been a consumable good, but with the coming of an industrial-scale sandal oil factory located in the heart of sandal country, sandalwood production now ramped up immensely.  

Annual reports from Karnataka State Forest Department state that over 480,000 sandalwood trees were harvested annually in the state each year between 1950 and 1970. 22

In 1974 a resource report stated that there were only 350,000 trees left standing. More alarming was that of these trees, only 4360 had a diameter more than 30 cm. Overnight India’s sandalwood industry came to a halt. Harvesting and trade in sandalwood was now banned.

Rashkow states that the drive for destruction of sandalwood was that people around the world had developed a fondness for scent and natural products made with sandalwood. 22

Ironically, much of the sandalwood consumption in the West especially seems to be driven by a desire to live a “natural” lifestyle coupled with an utter lack of awareness.

It was at this time that the illegal harvesting and smuggling of sandalwood increased. By the 1970s the sandalwood situation was made worse by the fact that sandalwood smugglers could make more money by poaching endangered sandalwood trees than by killing elephants. 22

Smugglers have made large fortunes from illegal poaching of sandalwood. According to one report approximately 75% of the sandalwood leaving Karnataka is smuggled. Veerappan, dubbed the “sandalwood bandit”, was the most notorious sandalwood smuggler in India. In 1997, he had a 4 million rupee bounty on his head. Before 9/11 and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, the hunt for Veerappan was the most costly and largest manhunt in Asia. He was finally killed on 18 October 2004 in a police encounter, however other smugglers have risen to take his place.22

Sandalwood in India

A 1998 report highlighted the critical status of sandalwood in India. In all the six states of India in which sandalwood is harvested the authors expressed concern. Swaminathan explained that sandalwood is indiscriminately exploited illegally. The data on the amount of illegally harvested sandalwood is indeed alarming – representing over 30% of the total sandalwood being harvested.23

The report stated that no mature trees were left in the forest areas. Typically the forests were devoid of larger girth trees. This is not only due to illegal harvesting but also to grazing and another big concern – spike disease. Spike disease has caused substantial damage and destroyed some good sandalwood bearing areas. 23

Lawrence reports the total official auction sales of sandalwood in India have dropped from 2,850 metric tonnes in 1993 to 1,275 metric tonnes in 2005. This is more than 50% drop in such a short period. However, it has been reported that the actual annual production could be as high as 3,000-4,000 tonnes.7 This is because of all the illegal harvesting that is now occurring. This is alarming and highlights the lack of controls in India to manage sandalwood production.

Arun Kumar et al explain that the monopoly of sandalwood trade by the governments of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala has resulted in severe exploitation, pushing sandalwood into the vulnerable category of the IUCN Red list in 1998. They urge that it is essential to establish community and corporate sandalwood plantations in different parts of India with appropriate incentives and adequate protective measures.8

Unfortunately, the monopolistic control of sandalwood trees by the Indian government has not deterred the illegal and indiscriminate harvesting of sandalwood, nor has it helped to conserve the species in its natural habitat. Paradoxically, the restrictive policies of the Indian government had discouraged legitimate interest in growing sandalwood trees. The landholder was responsible for the preservation of the sandalwood trees, which remain the exclusive property of the government, however very little incentive was provided to the landowner to protect the sandalwood trees.8,12

Bhaskar et al explain that landowners had no right to a sandalwood tree growing on their land, but were responsible for its preservation. Only the government had the right to sell or trade the wood. On extraction the landowner was paid (75% of the net value less all the costs of extraction, transport and cleaning) which often did not amount to much, also punitive clauses in the law made landowners vulnerable to severe punishments even for minor offences related to the sandalwood trees growing on their land. In particular, the liability to preserve the trees and the fear of harassment and compensation to be paid to the government in case of theft promoted the farmers to destroy even saplings that came up naturally.21

Local government authorities in India have changed the Act to entitle occupants or holders of the land to be legally entitled to own the sandalwood tree on their land. However while changes have been made to give the landowners ownership, the government still retains control over felling, sale and transport of privately owned trees. Bhaskar et al state that sandalwood laws in India should be liberalized. This will be the only way to encourage farmers to take up sandalwood cultivation.21

History of Sandalwood in Australia

Native Western Australia sandalwood has been exported since the early days of Western Australian settlement – first to Chinese merchants in South East Asia since 1844 for use as incense and then to other parts of Asia and mainland China. Sandalwood soon became a significant export economy, with export values being considerably more than wool prices at the time.24 

More than 50,000 tonnes of sandalwood spicatum was exported from Western Australia by the beginning of the 20th century.

In the period 1844 to 1929, Western Australia became a dominant exporter of sandalwood, which was purchased mainly by Chinese merchants in Singapore and Shanghai to be powdered for incense. The Australian sandalwood was considered inferior to the S. album from Timor and India. It was not suitable for carving given its lower oil content. However, the aromatic quality of the Western Australian sandalwood was an excellent sought-after characteristic for wood to be pulverised for incense.25

By 1847 most of the wild sandalwood stands in the Avon Valley had been exhausted and cutters were venturing further and further inland.25

During the 1870s the Mysore sandalwood plantations in India failed to meet domestic demand and restrictions had been placed on export. This allowed the Western Australian sandalwood industry to treble in size. The peak of 9,605 tons exported in 1882 was in fact not surpassed for almost 40 years. The discovery of gold in the Pilbara region meant that Western Australia’s population had increased by 46% within a very short period. While alluvial gold was easily found, there was no incentive to harvest sandalwood, but as surface gold became harder to find, sandalwood provided a welcome substitute.25

More than 50,000 tonnes of sandalwood were exported from the Western Australian wheat belt in the final decades of the 1800s. From the mid-19th century onwards harvesting of sandalwood continued at such a prolific rate that legislation was finally introduced in 1929 to ensure that the industry could operate sustainably and ensure the quality of the harvest continued. 24

In 1929 the Western Australian government introduced the Sandalwood Act 1929 to manage the harvesting of wild S. spicatum. This Act has been responsible for setting the quota for the number of wild trees that can be harvested. However, as the amount of S. album available on the international market has diminished the pressure to harvest more S. spicatum from the wild increased. Nowadays the Western Australian government has acknowledged that wild harvesting at current rates is not sustainable.24

Guenther states that the history of Australian sandalwood oil is one of vicissitudes. He explains that the oil was first distilled experimentally in 1875 by Schimmel & Co in Leipzig, Germany. However, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that there was sporadic production of the oil by a number of small distillers in Western Australia. At the time the oil was sold in a crude state and it had a very low santalol content.14

Statham states that the first sandalwood oil distilled in Australia was in 1913. Braddock established a distillation plant just outside Perth. In 1917 he was exporting over 3,000 lbs of oil to England. The British Pharmacopoeia announced the tests on the Western Australian oil having an unusual positive refraction which gave it a unique advantage in medical use. The oil was also used as a base for soaps and creams; demand was high both at home and abroad.25

In 1921 the systemic production and scientific control of the distillation of sandalwood oil was instituted by Plaimar Ltd in Perth. At that time the oil was of such a quality that it was considered as being of the equivalent quality of the well-established and better-known East Indian sandalwood oil. According to the British Pharmacopoeia of 1932 Western Australian sandalwood was considered equally therapeutic to the Easter Indian sandalwood oil.14

The Western Australian sandalwood tree has had a very rough handling by scientific botanists. It was first known as Santalum spicatum or S. zygnorum. This was later changed to Fusanus spicatus, and finally to Eucarya spicata. This last classification was accepted by the British Pharmacopoeia in 1932, but synonymized as Santalum spicatum. 14

Guenther states that the effect of changing the botanical nomenclature upon a commercial product is far reaching. He states that for years Australian sandalwood suffered serious competition with the East Indian oil because merchants used differences in nomenclature and chemical composition for trade purposes. The change of name from the genus Santalum to the genus Eucarya created the erroneous impression that the Australian oil was an entirely different species with a different chemical composition and therapeutic properties.14

Queensland began exporting small quantities of sandalwood from the Cape York in the 1890s. The wood from S.lanceolatum variety was exported through a Chinese merchant. The annual tonnage was well below 100 tons. Statham states that 4 tons of this wood was used at Gandhi’s funeral in 1948.25

Sandalwood in Australia today

New legislation was passed in 2016 to manage licensing for the harvest of sandalwood. It is now managed by the Department of Parks and Wildlife under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016. This replaces the Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 and the Sandalwood Act 1929. The new legislation has set a strict quota for the amount of green wood and dead wood that can be harvested. It also enforces tougher penalties for illegal activities as well as improving trading and processing accountability.26

Sandalwood harvesting on Crown land is managed by Forest Products Commission (FPC) under a contract system. The Wildlife Licensing Section of Parks and Wildlife issues a Sandalwood Act Crown land license to the FPC with the names of all approved contractors endorsed upon it as ‘authorised person’.26

Santalum spicatum wood ready for processing

Parks and Wildlife regulates the alienated land harvest under a licensing system. Licences are issued by Parks and Wildlife’s Wildlife Licensing Section under the Sandalwood Act to pull both green and dead wood on private land under the Wildlife Conservation Act to sell green sandalwood harvested on private land.26

A government report in 2015 stated if current levels of harvesting were continued indefinitely there would be a substantially lower frequency of larger trees within a few decades. Therefore, each year a new quota is determined for an acceptable level of harvest of wild sandalwood.24

It is recognised that the industry is likely to access plantation S. spicatum by 2026, thus taking pressure off the wild sandalwood resource.24

FPC is responsible for the commercial harvesting, regeneration, marketing and sale of wild Western Australian sandalwood from Crown land (including land that is subject to pastoral leases). The ‘sandalwood order’ took effect on 1 July 2016 and set an annual quota at 2,500 tonnes – 1,250 tonnes of green wood and 1,250 tonnes of dead wood.24

The new legislation specifies the tree sizes that can be harvested. The current minimum circumference for living wild sandalwood trees to be harvested is 400mm (over bark) measured at approximately 150mm above the ground. This is equivalent to stem diameter of 126mm.24

According to the 2015 government report, natural regeneration of sandalwood is being severely hampered because seedlings are grazed by feral herbivores and stock. Woylies have traditionally played a critical role in the propagation and regeneration of sandalwood. The woylie is a small marsupial which feeds on sandalwood seeds, collecting and hoarding them in shallow diggings up to 80 metres from the original tree, similar to the way that squirrels store acorns. Not all the seeds that the woylie buries are revisited; therefore, some of the buried seeds germinate when the winter rains come.24

The disappearance of the small marsupial because of feral cats and foxes has impacted on the regeneration of sandalwood in the wild. Fire, drought and climate change are additional factors that have also contributed to reduced seedling survival.24
FPC has commenced a regeneration program that aims to plant a minimum of 10 tonnes of seeds (around 3.5 million seeds) per year. It is estimated that this will lead to the establishment of over one million seedlings between 2016 and 2025. This figure is well in excess of the number of trees to be harvested.24

According to a WA government report of 2015, the illegal activities were on a very small scale, however illegal poaching escalated around 2008 and peaked in 2013.24

The illegal harvesting and theft of Australian sandalwood is still a significant issue and has been addressed with the introduction of new legislation. The Act increases the penalties for the illegal harvesting of sandalwood. The maximum penalties for illegally harvested wild sandalwood are now $200,000 for individuals and $1 million for corporations.24

Is Australian Sandalwood sustainable?

Strong government legislation to provide protection for the plant and a legal framework for the ownership and control of the plant has helped ensure that the S. spicatum industry will be viable in the long term.
The establishment of S. spicatum plantations will take pressure off the demand to harvest wild trees. An estimated total of 20,000 hectares of Western Australian sandalwood plantations has been established in Western Australia. Harvesting the S. spicatum plantations is anticipated to commence around 2026.1

Cultivation of S. spicatum is also being encouraged to reduce problems with salinity in many areas of wheat belt in Western Australia. Growing wheat, and other grains, has led to dry land salinity. These crops do not consume all of the year’s rainfall and the surplus builds up in the flat landscape, bringing salt to the surface. Plantations of sandalwood and other trees are helping to reverse this trend.1

S. spicatum is unique because it provides a secondary source of income for farm owners because of the seeds. The seeds are also used for planting and replanting and as “bush food”.1

Santalum album in Australia

Experimental growing of Indian sandalwood first occurred in Kununurra in 1983 by FPC and the former Department of Conservation and Land Management.27

ACIAR funded sandalwood research with the then WA Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) from 1987 – 1995 in Indonesia and Australia. This helped develop reliable nursery techniques for mass production of high-quality seedlings and identifying and the practicality and value of second-stage and third-stage host plants. 27

The S. album in Western Australia has over the last 20 years become a large-scale commercial industry. One of the major companies is Tropical Forestry Services (TFS) now called Quintis. It manages over 5.4 million trees covering 12,182 hectares of S. album in Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland.28

The first harvest of Indian sandalwood occurred in September 2013. The first harvest consisted of 144 hectares of sandalwood trees that were planted in 1999 and 2000.29

Santalum album plantations in the Ord River irrigation Area.

A young Santalum album tree with its host in the nursery.

Cultivation of Santalum album is a challenging and laborious process. Each sandalwood tree will require at least three host trees and continuous care over a 15-year lifespan.30

Before the trees are harvested, core samples are taken to analyse the oil content in the heartwood. Once the trees are harvested the wood needs to be dried for the correct amount of time and the bark and sapwood are carefully removed so that only the heartwood is left.30

Before visiting the plantations, I was concerned that monoculture may be detrimental to the environment. However, I was pleased to see that this does not apply to sandalwood plantations. Sandalwood is a hemi-parasitic plant so it requires several host trees throughout its life. There may be up to six species growing in the plantation. The plantation looked like a forest and growing forests is good for the environment and global ecosystem. I was also surprised to see many birds had made their home in the sandalwood plantation. Growing S. album also has a very low impact when it comes to pesticides and fertilisers – as none are required.



Success! The sandalwood tree roots have successfully attached themselves to the first host plant.

As global supplies of sandalwood oil from world sources dwindle, Australia has become the world leader in the growth and sustainable supply of Santalum album and has in place strong strategies and policies to ensure that the Santalum spicatum be sustainably harvested.

Holmes provides us with the best quote with which to conclude:9

How can we trust the wisdom of our inner self and still be in control? How can we feel safe in the embrace of the unknown?

He suggests that sandalwood helps us confront the ultimate mystery – the mystery of our earthly existence. We have a responsibility to save this precious oil of enlightenment for future generations.



The roots have been cleaned and are ready for processing

The final product – divine sandalwood oil


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