The Cropwatch Files

The agarwood Files



Agarwood Trading



Copyright Tony Burfield 2005





Agarwood Trading

Most gaharu finds its way to the Middle East (especially Saudi Arabia) where it known as oud), with smaller amounts going to Japan, China etc. Agarwood oil is distilled from the lowest grades of gaharu (Dhum), and used in high-end perfumes for the Arabian and related markets. An 80 year-old tree can yield 6-9 Kg of agarwood oil (Sadgopal 1960), although Mahindru (1992) puts the figure at 2.7 to 3.6 Kg/tree for 50 year old trees in India, and Gianno (1986) puts it even lower at 1kg per tree with a girth of above 20cm dbh. Unfortunately the oil rarely reaches end-users in the West in an unadulterated condition; poor oils (where obtainable) currently sell at around £12,000 per Kg, with better oils selling for £30,000 per Kg upwards (prices & quality vary from dealer to dealer). One of the authors (TB) has known particular batches to sell for £100,000 a Kg or more to specific customers in Saudi Arabia.

Traders reliably distinguish eight agarwood grades (CITES 2004) on quality, but complications arise concerning botanical origins when one considers that a particular agarwood species can only be identified by morphological characters (by those expert at botanical systematics), preferrably at the flowering stage. Batch tracking of commodities from botanically identified sources is not in place. In some instances, only one or two species may predominates from a particular location, so only the origin needs to be known. The chemical analysis of agarwood commodities (wood, chips, dust, oil) from various geographic origins is becoming more advanced, but is a practical impossibility at most points of trade – expensive equipment and highly trained operators being required. End-user analysis (for fragrance companies) is also possible, but is extemely unusual – most estimates of quality being carried out organoleptically.

A decision was taken by the Eleventh meeting of the Parties to CITES directed the Plants Committee to resolve issues in distinguishing Aquilaria species from each other when traded, particularly when traded as agarwood. A system of identification might help prevent the large amount of illegally logged and traded Aquilaria wood, chips and dust (but not oil).

The need to distinguish Aquilaria timbers and their origins is discussed by Koopman & Diemont in an article on molecular markers for CITES-protected timber species where the authors argue the merits of DNA sequence markers and DNA fragment markers for this purpose. The authors refer to unpublished work carried out by Eurlings and Gravendeel who examined nine Aquilaria spp. and five Gyrinops spp., being able to identify four Aquilaria spp. and three Gyrinops spp., the remaining seven species being mutually indistringuishable.    

 Yance et al. (2001) compared the anatomical characters of five ‘gaharu’ wood species, Aquilaria malaccensis, Aetoxylon sympetalum, Gonystylus bancanus, Gonystylus macrophyllus, and Gyrinops versteegii. The authors found that Aquilaria malaccensis and Gyrinops versteegii have included phloem, whilst the other three gaharu wood species did not. Aquilaria malaccensis could be differentiated from Gyrinops versteegii on vessel characteristics. The authors also stated that the presence of very thick-walled fibres and 1-3 seriate rays could be used to differentiate Aetoxylon sympetalum from Gonystylus spp. The presence of very thick-walled fibres and 1-3 seriate rays could be used to differentiate Aetoxylon sympetalum from Gonystylus spp. - the latter has fibres of medium wall  thickness and its rays are commonly uniserate.


Update August 2005

Following on from the resolutions of the 13th CITES meeting in Bangkok  in Oct 2004, the EU Commission has a new regulation (Commission Regulation (EC) No 1332/2005 of 9 August 2005) amending Council Regulation (EC) No 338/97 on the protection of species of wild fauna and flora, by regulating trade therein (this follows on from the resolutions of the 13th CITES meeting in Bangkok  in Oct 2004).

For our purposes, and considering only the aromatic species affected, it is a reclassification whereby Aquilaria spp. (except for A. malaccensis, which was already listed in Appendix II), Gyrinops spp. and Gonystylus spp. (previously listed in Appendix III) were included in Appendix II* to the Convention. 

The regulation affects all parts and derivatives of the above species, except: (a) seeds, spores and pollen (including pollinia); (b) seedling or tissue cultures obtained in vitro, in solid or liquid media, transported in sterile containers, and (c) cut flowers of artificially propagated plants.

[*Appendix II includes species not considered to be under the same threat as those in Appendix I, but which may become so if trade is not regulated. International trade in these species is monitored through a licensing system to ensure that trade can be sustained without detriment to wild populations. Appendix III contains species that are not necessarily threatened on a global level, but that are protected within individual states where that state has sought the help of other CITES Parties to control international trade in that species].

This outcome may give a little more muscle in the fight to combat the "eco-mafia" who make a trade out of smuggling protected species. However as is stated elsewhere in this data-base, licenses are easily fabricated at point of export by the “eco-mafia” and despatched to the receiving customers of these illicit goods.



Please see Agarwood Bibliography at the end of Agarwood files Database database for references.