Sustainable harvest of wild sandalwood sought after by the traditional owners of Yilka

The smell hits Kayshun Murray when her chainsaw is almost in the trunk.

Standing in the desert of Western Australia, wearing a helmet and steel-hooded boots, the young ranger inhales a fragrance judged to be among the best in the world.

“You can really smell all the beauty it contains,” she said.

The scent of the sacred sandalwood tree spreads for millennia in the village of Yilka, more than 1,000 kilometers north-east of Perth.

It has long been coveted by international perfume houses and incense makers from New York to Beijing.

Western Australia has been harvesting the trees and distilling their precious oil to meet that demand since 1845.

But Mr. Murray and other traditional owners of Yilka were only granted a seat at that table a year ago, when they were licensed to harvest wild sandalwood in their country.

They are determined to keep that right in the future.

Push for a ban on wild crops

Calls have been made to ban the harvest of wild sandalwood for fear of it being pushed to the brink of extinction.

By the end of 2025, a law will be reviewed that determines how much can be withdrawn.

The government will ask for public comments on a management program in the coming months.

She wears hi-vis and leans against a sandalwood chest
HM has wanted to see sandalwood harvested in Yilka country for decades.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

The driving force behind the Yilka sandalwood operation, known as HM for cultural reasons, said they understood these concerns.

But the president of the Yilka Talintji Aboriginal Corporation said Aboriginal people should have the opportunity to take advantage of the industry in their land, as the WA government has done for years.

Data from WA’s Forest Products Commission (FPC) shows that total wild sandalwood revenue is expected to exceed $ 21 million, excluding costs, in the last financial year.

Yilka secured the native title of the Cosmo Newberry reserve in 2017.

This meant that, after receiving the harvesting license, he could profit from harvesting the wild tree.

HM said all earnings were reinvested in the land after paying rangers’ salaries and purchasing new equipment.

“That way, you don’t have to depend on the government,” he said.

Sandalwood is found in a chest
Sandalwood is worth up to $ 25,000 per tonne.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

“Regeneration is taking place”

HM said his organization hired an outside consultant who said an annual wild crop of 100 tons would be sustainable in Yilka country.

But he said rangers from Yilka Heritage and Land Care would instead collect 60 tons, 20 of which would be deadwood.

He said the rangers collected “every second legal tree” from predetermined lots.

He said they wouldn’t go back to that lot for 45 years, the time it took for trees to grow.

HM said 20 seeds were sown to replace each felled tree.

The Forest Products Commission of WA attributed the decline of wild sandalwood to the disappearance of small marsupials that buried and scattered seeds, overgrazed and reduced winter rainfall rather than harvest.

He believes the regeneration work could help change things.

HM is located to the right of the machine, which looks like a tractor
The plant’s equipment was customized to extract sandalwood trees.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

HM said the junior ranger program – made up of school-age children from Cosmo Newberry – aided regeneration by measuring, photographing, and recording the coordinates of trees pulled and planted.

“So when we go for our next license, we can show the government that all of this remanufacturing is happening from where we retired last year,” HM said.

Social sustainability

The harvested sandalwood is taken to the Dutjanh Sandalwood Oil distillery in Kalgoorlie, where the oil is extracted and sold to the international fragrance market.

Distillery CEO Guy Vincent, who recently returned from Miami’s World Perfumery Congress, said a combination of cultural management and scientific expertise was key to ensuring the sustainability of the wild sandalwood industry.

The bottle is held between the thumb and forefinger
A ranger holds a small bottle of Yilka country sandalwood oil in his hand.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

Vincent also said that Dutjanh, who was half owned by Aboriginal Australians and invested about 30% of the earnings in communities, and Yilka had clear commitments to social sustainability.

But he said the industry needed to do more in that space.

“Buying wood through groups like Yilka is economically and socially sustainable because we share our benefits,” said Vincent.

“[But] we are a very rare case in the industry “.

He stands in high visibility and points to the tree
Forest ranger Jessica Sullivan with a sandalwood tree in Yilka country.(Features: Bridie Hardy)

The WA government recently appointed an Aboriginal Sandalwood Advisory Group to help increase First Nations involvement in the industry.

He said he increased the quota of wild sandalwood available to Aboriginal people seeking a license last year by reducing the FPC quota.

He also said that social sustainability was among the criteria that wild sandalwood quantities would be revised again by 2026.

‘You can walk in freedom’

Ranger Lyall Westlake said he felt at peace in the countryside.

He has curly hair and a mask tucked under his beard
Lyall Westlake says he loves working in the countryside.(ABC News: Emily Smith)

“The earth is really perfect,” he said, standing under rain clouds on Great Central Road.

“You can smell the breeze. Smell the wind.”

He said it was different from the city where there were more cars and people.

“You don’t know who comes and goes,” he said.

“But here you can walk freely.”

Fellow ranger Gwenetta Westlake said she loved working with her younger sister, Chelsea.

Two women stand next to each other smiling on a bare, flat piece of land
Gwenetta and Chelsea Westlake love their ranger job.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

“She always chases me, wherever I go because she is my little sister,” he said.

Cosmo Newberry residents are among the 45 rangers HM has on the books to manage the sandalwood operation, as well as cool burns and take care of cultural sites.

A ranger is depicted from behind, as flames leap in the shot
Rangers conduct cold burns in the village of Yilka.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

HM said the job provided alternative jobs to the local mining industry and was culturally more suited to many of the people involved.

He said a well-run industry could pave the way for a better future for many residents.

“Taking care of the country is the most important thing for us,” he said.

“If we don’t, we don’t exist.”

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