The great forest robbery: How Andhra’s rare red sanders are smuggled around the world

Chennai serves as the nerve centre of a well-organised smuggling network that is severely threatening the rare red sander population.
The great forest robbery: How Andhra’s rare red sanders are smuggled around the world
The great forest robbery: How Andhra’s rare red sanders are smuggled around the world
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There is a systematic extinction steadily proceeding in the hills of Andhra Pradesh, and it seems that little the government, police or forest officials can do has significantly halted this. While there is no comprehensive tree census available, some estimates suggest that the natural distribution of red sanders in Andhra Pradesh has fallen by at least 50% over the last two decades.

According to sources at the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, which is one of the nodal agencies tasked with preventing red sander smuggling, nearly 90% of of the 3,000-tonne annual red sander demand globally was met through smuggling and the seaport in Chennai is the nerve centre of this illegal trade.

In the 2016-17 financial year, the Chennai zonal unit of the DRI had seized more than 50 metric tonnes of red sanders. Though the corresponding figure for 2017-18 is yet to be compiled, on Monday alone, the DRI seized 40 metric tonnes of red sanders worth about Rs 16 crores at Punrutti, near Chennai.  

What are red sanders?

Red sanders are a rare kind of sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus) that grows only in the Palakonda and Seshachalam hills, with sporadic growth in a few places like Kurnool, Prakasam, Anantapur and Nellore districts in Andhra Pradesh. While it is not widely used in India, it is highly valued in South East Asia and in the Gulf nations, where it is used in certain kinds of traditional medicine, as well as in the manufacture of musical instruments and certain other kinds of wooden items.

As red sanders are included in the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), their legal export is very strictly regulated, and the global market survives mostly on the basis of smuggling. One tonne of ‘A grade’ quality red sander logs fetches anywhere between Rs 1 to 1.5 crores and the prices of the lower grade wood range between Rs 25 to 50 lakh in the international market.

This lucrative market has generated an entrenched, well-connected smuggling racket. This indiscriminate felling, coupled with recurrent droughts and wildfires, is posing a serious threat to the plant species, as it strongly affects the regeneration and seeding of red sanders. Red sanders have a xenogamous seed production mechanism (where pollen from one flower transfer directly to the flower on another tree), which is dependent on the overall population size as well as the availability of superior pheno/genotypes for production of good quality seeds. Thus the reduction in population size and lack of good quality individual plants puts the continued survival of the species at risk.

How the powerful racket operates

While much has been said and done at the supply end in Andhra Pradesh, the enforcement gaps that allow this network to smuggle so many tonnes of the wood through Tamil Nadu receive far less glare.

According to DRI sources, smugglers hire poachers to locate and cut down the trees, paying them between Rs 20 and Rs 40 per kilogram based on the market demand. So, while smugglers make lakhs out of each tonne, the poachers based in the rural parts of Chittoor, Kadapa, Nellore and Kurnool districts of AP who cut the trees are paid as little as Rs 50,000 to 1 lakh per tonne.

The logs are then hidden in agricultural fields before they are transported to Chennai by various road routes.

“Red sander logs are smuggled through land borders between Andhra and Tamil Nadu with the connivance of local police. Smugglers use even posh cars to smuggle smaller quantities of red sanders and store them in their godowns or in agricultural fields,” a senior police official said.

The vast industrial belt stretching from Oragadam in Kancheepuram district to Royapuram in Chennai, offers the best possible cover for the smuggling network. The large container yards and godowns in these areas are used by smugglers to store and load red sanders into containers.

“The smugglers have perfected the system to manipulate the loopholes in container movement monitoring. The container scanning system at Chennai port is not comprehensive and only a handful of containers are scanned based on its risk perception,” a DRI official said.

The official explains that smugglers take advantage of the practice of factory-stuffing, where containers for export are verified by customs officials at the loading source and sealed. Once the container lock is sealed after verification, the container is carried from its source, most often located at the outskirts of the city, to the Chennai port.

Smugglers manipulate this distance and divert the container to one of the large container yards en route. They then cut the container lock rod at both ends, without disturbing the sealed lock and open the container to stuff it with red sanders. The logs are hidden under the original export consignment, and the container lock rod is re-welded, rubbed and painted to remove any sign of disturbance. The container then proceeds to the port. And with all papers regarding customs clearance in hand, it gets a green signal to travel to the destination port.

“Customs carry out searches in locked containers only if we get a specific information regarding smuggling. Otherwise, these containers get automatically loaded into the carriers,” a customs official said. Sources say that many officials are working hand in glove with the smugglers in return for hefty kickbacks.

How such smuggling continues unhindered

Police, customs and DRI officials acknowledge that seizure efforts represent only the tip of the iceberg. For every tonne of smuggled red sanders seized, nearly 10 tonnes escape under the radar, say sources.

One major reason for this, say officials, is that there is a lack of coordination between Tamil Nadu and Andhra governments, which allows smugglers to evade checks as the wood is transported to Chennai.  

Sources also point to the connivance of local police and customs officials in helping this network thrive.

Officials also allege that investigations have not sufficiently proceeded beyond the low level poachers and smugglers to the high level functionaries who wield the real political and economic influence that sustains the network. In many cases, they say, the operators who are caught with the smuggled wood are ignorant of the larger pieces of the network.

The DRI – which comes into action when red sanders are being smuggled out of India – meanwhile, is struggling to maintain the informer network that is a crucial element in its investigative efforts.  According to DRI sources, the agency is struggling to pay the commission that informers are entitled to whenever smuggled red sanders are seized and sold.

These consignments are to be sold off through government auctions, and 20% of the proceeds paid to informers. However, DRI officials say, due to stringent restrictions applied under the CITES, legal auctions do not take place. As a result, informers are not sufficiently incentivised. 

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