The state forest department is struggling to protect its natural treasure of red sanders from rampant felling by smugglers who are devising new modus operandi every day to dodge the authorities. While 7,000 tonnes of seized red sanders logs have piled up in the states godowns,the rare forests are fast disappearing.
An endangered species,red sanders,a fragrant,red-coloured timber,which were once found in the Nallamalla forests is now confined to 5 lakh hectares across Kadapa,Chittoor and Nellore. They are not found anywhere else in the world. These remnants are increasingly becoming the target of smuggling gangs from Rayalaseema,Tamil Nadu and Nepal.
Felling is illegal and export is banned by the Government of India. Even trees grown in private farms require permission for felling and selling. There is a high demand overseas,especially in China and Japan where red sanders furniture and musical instruments are status symbols. In the black market,one tonne of red sanders easily fetches anywhere between Rs 8 and 10 lakh.
A recent spate of seizures of illegally felled and smuggled wood in Nepal,Mumbai,Chhattisgarh,Jammu and Kashmir,Kolkata and Orissa have come as a jolt to the state government.
On April 7,the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) officers seized 6,835 kg of red sanders worth Rs 68.50 lakh in Siliguri. The logs were concealed in a truck carrying sanitaryware. Prior to that the Central Intelligence Unit of the Jawaharlal Nehru Port custom house at Nhava Shewa seized two containers loaded with 18.8 tonnes of red sanders valued at Rs 1.6 crore,which were to be exported to Dubai. Forest officials say it was the 14th seizure at the port in the last 12 months and the total quantity of red sanders seized was 230 tonnes. The forest department and state police have made so many seizures that 7,000 tonnes of seized red sanders have piled up in the godowns.
Forest officials say seizing felled trees is of no use as the red sanders forests are disappearing fast due to rampant felling. To ease the pressure on demand for red sanders in the international market,the state government has sought permission from GoI to auction the seized red sanders but no decision has been taken yet.
Red sanders grow only on hill tops and it takes 40-48 hours of climbing to reach the forests. In spite of security and frequent checks,smugglers manage to dodge the authorities. We seize wood that is illegally felled almost on a weekly basis but still some quantity is smuggled out. The price of the wood is so high in the international black market that smugglers are willing to take risks. It has become all the more difficult for us as they involve villagers and forest-dwellers, said Special Principal Chief Conservator of Forests,Vigilance C Sammi Reddy.
Officials say the main smuggling gangs hail from Tamil Nadu. They camp in hotels in Proddatur and Mydkur in Kadapa district and hire villagers living in the forest periphery to do the felling,often paying them Rs 1,500-2,000 for a days work. Agents get up to Rs 1 lakh per operation. They use cellphones and GPS to keep track of the movement of forest vehicles and their own men. The agents carry fire-arms,and large amounts of cash to bribe forest guards. If they cannot bribe,they open fire and flee.
The Kadapa district police recently nabbed two Nepali nationals Dinesh Lama and Singi Lama along with red sanders smuggler Markandeyan Lakshmanan of Chennai and two agents Andala Ramudu and Kanti Easwaraiah of Mydukur. Arms,Nepali SIM cards and 75 logs were also seized.
Seizing felled wood is fine but we have to prevent the felling itself otherwise the forests will disappear soon. We have set up base camps in the forests with five armed guards stationed there permanently. At least 340 vehicles have been made available to officers exclusively tasked to patrol and guard the forests against felling, an official said.