The Maharashtra state forest department recently busted transportation of an illegal consignment of red sander logs — being taken concealed in sofa seats — meant for export. In a crackdown spanning two days at Chiplun in Ratnagiri, the department seized over 9,000 kg of the red wood, that has a big demand as an aphrodisiac, medicines and for woodcraft in Southeast Asia.
Officials from the forest department and wildlife trade monitoring networks said that the tree was among the most valued and trafficked wildlife commodities with turnover outnumbering the trade in tiger body parts.
A ton of high-quality logs can fetch up to Rs 2 crore in offshore markets and a sofa made from the premium wood is worth Rs 1 crore in China, where it has great demand.
“We have seized 9,200 kg of red sanders at three places in Chiplun,” MK Rao, chief conservator of forests (Territorial), Kolhapur, told DNA. “In some places, they concealed these logs in sofa sets for export,” he said. The 312 logs seized are valued at over Rs 1.10 crore.
Suresh Varak, Range Forest Officer (RFO), Chiplun, said officials initiated the crackdown on December 30 and 31 based on a tip-off. In the first raid, 92 logs were seized from a closed shop, next day, 104 logs were recovered from a temporary shed and 116 logs from an under-construction building in Govalkot. Around 62 box-type sofas were seized from these two sites.
“These sofas were used to conceal the red sander logs using iron strips and nuts,” said Varak.
Though forest officials have not made any arrests so far, they are on the lookout for Isa Jamaluddin Halde, a Govalkot resident.
“The consignment was meant for export. It is likely that the wood was sourced from southern states,” said Varak.
Red sanders, considered an endangered tree, is protected under the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) and its trade is illegal. According to the union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), the Palakonda and Seshachalam hill ranges of Cuddapah-Chittoor districts in Andhra Pradesh are its principal geographical range, which extends slightly into the neighbouring Anantapur, Kurnool, Prakasam and Nellore districts in the state. Sporadic wild populations occur in the adjoining districts of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.
“This is a very organised crime,” said Dr Shekhar Kumar Niraj head of TRAFFIC — a wildlife trade monitoring network in India — admitting that the prevalence of and illegal financial turnover in the red sanders smuggling was larger than trade in tiger body parts.
The wood was mostly smuggled in log form to markets like China, where the demand is huge. A piece of furniture made of good quality red sanders could cost between Rs 55 lakh to Rs 1 crore in China with a spurt in demand due to rising disposable incomes.
“The trees are trafficked in containers often hidden in granite, rice and chilly,” said a senior WCCB official. “It is a big smuggling racket where one person involved in the link may not know the other, which makes it difficult to break the chain and nab the kingpins,” said a senior forest department official.