The sustainable harvest of wild sandalwood sought by traditional owners of yelka

The smell strikes Kayshun Murray when his saw is almost right through the trunk.

A young ranger in steel-covered helmet and boots stands in the Western Australian desert, inhaling a fragrance considered among the best in the world.

“You can actually smell all the beauty in it,” he said.

The scent of the sacred sandalwood has spread over the country of Yelka, more than 1,000 kilometers northeast of Perth, for thousands of years.

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

Western Australia has harvested trees and distilled their precious oil to help meet this demand since 1845.

But Mr. Murray and other traditional yelka owners were only given a seat at that table a year ago when they obtained a license to harvest wild sandalwood in their country.

They are determined to retain this right in the future.

Pay to Ban Wild Harvest

There have been calls to ban the harvest of wild sandalwood amid fears it could be pushed to the brink of extinction.

The law that determines how much can be taken will be reviewed before the end of 2025.

The Government will invite public comments on the management program in the coming months.

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

The driving force behind the sandalwood operation in Yalka, known as HM for cultural reasons, said he understood those concerns.

But the president of the Yelka Talentingy Foundation for Indigenous Peoples said Aboriginal people should have the opportunity to benefit from industry on their land – as the Western Australian government has done for years.

Figures from WA’s Forest Products Commission (FPC) show that total revenue from wild sandalwood is expected to exceed $21 million, excluding costs, in the past fiscal year.

Yilka acquired the original title to the Cosmo Newberry Reserve in 2017.

This means that after obtaining the harvest license, you can benefit from the harvest of the wild tree.

HM said all profits were invested back into the land after the guards were paid and new equipment was purchased.

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

Sandalwood sitting in a cage
Sandalwood is valued at $25,000 per ton.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

“renewal is happening”

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

But he said guards for Yilka Heritage and Land Care would collect 60 tons instead, 20 of which would be dead wood.

He said the rangers harvested “every second legal tree” from predetermined cuttings.

He said they won’t be back in that area for 45 years – the time it takes for trees to grow.

HM said that 20 seeds were thrown out to replace each felled tree.

The Washington State Forest Products Committee attributed the decline of wild sandalwood to the disappearance of small marsupials that buried and spread seeds, overgrazing, and reduced winter precipitation rather than harvesting.

You think renovations can help turn things around.

HM stands to the right of the tractor-like machine
Factory equipment is dedicated to pulling sandalwood trees.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

HM said the Little Sentinel program — made up of school-age children from Cosmo Newberry — helped the renovation by measuring, photographing and recording the coordinates of felled and planted trees.

“So when we go get our next license, we can prove to the government that all of this renewal is happening from where we pulled out last year,” His Majesty said.

social sustainability

The harvested sandalwood is transported to the Dutjanh Sandalwood Oil Distillery in Kalgoorlie where the oil is extracted and sold on the international perfume market.

Guy Vincent, CEO of Distillery, who recently returned from the World Fragrance Congress in Miami, said the combination of cultural stewardship and scientific expertise was key to ensuring the sustainability of the wild sandalwood industry.

The small bottle is held between the thumb and forefinger
A guard holds a small bottle of sandalwood oil from the country of Yalka.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

Mr Vincent also said that Dutjanh, which was half owned by Indigenous Australians and invested around 30 per cent of profits in the communities, Yilka had clear commitments to social sustainability.

But he said the industry needed to do more in this area.

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

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

She stands in a visible position and points to the tree
Ranger Jessica Sullivan with a sandalwood tree in yelka country.(Supplied: Brady Hardy)

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

She said it increased the share of wild sandalwood available to Indigenous people seeking a license last year while reducing the share of FPC.

She also said that social sustainability was among the criteria by which quantities of wild sandalwood harvested would be reviewed again by 2026.

You can walk freely

Guard Lial Westlake said he felt at peace in the country.

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

“The land is really great,” he said, standing under clouds of rain on Great Central Road.

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

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

“You don’t know who’s coming and going,” he said.

“But here you can walk freely.”

Fellow goalkeeper Gwenita Westlake said she loves working with her younger brother Chelsea.

Two women standing next to each other smiling on a flat, empty plot of land
Gwinita and Chelsea Westlake love their job as bouncers.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

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

Residents of Cosmo Newberry are among HM’s 45 rangers on the books for managing the sandalwood process, as well as cold burns and tending to cultural sites.

A guard is photographed from behind, while the flame jumps into the shot
Rangers run cold burns in Yelka country.(ABC News: Madison Snow)

HM said the work provided alternative jobs to the local mining industry and was a cultural fit for many of the participants.

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

“Caring for the country is the most important thing for us,” he said.

“If we don’t, we don’t exist.”

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