Hunt for rare fragrance is pushing one of world’s most expensive trees towards extinction: Al Jazeera documentary

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Rising demand for fragrant agarwood, coupled with the increasing rarity of agarwood-producing tree species, is fueling corruption, undermining global agreements meant to protect the rare trees, and is putting human lives at risk, a new Al Jazeera documentary called Scent from Heaven has found.

Hunt for rare fragrance is pushing one of world’s most expensive trees towards extinction: Al Jazeera documentary
  • Fueled by rising demand for oud, agarwood-producing trees are becoming incredibly rare and threatened in the wild.
  • High quality agarwood can cost more than $30,000 per kilogram (~2.2 pounds), almost as much as gold.
  • "There are even now people getting killed in the hunt for Oud,” journalist Ali Mohamed al Woosain says in the documentary.

The demand for a rare, fragrant ingredient is threatening the survival of one of the world’s most expensive trees, a new Al Jazeera documentary has found.

Some trees of the Aquilaria and Gyrinops genus — found in parts of India and southeast Asia — produce agarwood, a resin-soaked, scented bark. Oil from this fragrant agarwood is frequently added to perfumes, incense products, and medicines, and is an integral part of many cultures. Agarwood (also called oud) is especially popular in the Arab countries and Japan.

But agarwood’s attractiveness has had some devastating consequences, the documentary Scent from Heaven reveals.

Fewer than two percent of Aquilaria or Gyrinops trees actually produce agarwood, according to the documentary. Moreover, it is extremely difficult to see and predict if a tree has produced agarwood or not. So loggers end up cutting Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees indiscriminately. Consequently, agarwood-producing trees are becoming incredibly rare and threatened in the wild.

In fact, agarwood-producing species have been put on the list of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and it is now illegal to cut or harvest agarwood-producing species in India and most southeast Asian countries.

Aquilaria tree showing darker agarwood. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Aquilaria tree showing darker agarwood. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

This increased rarity of the trees has driven up agarwood prices, the documentary says. High quality agarwood, for example, can cost more than $30,000 per kilogram (~2.2 pounds), almost as much as gold.

Despite the skyrocketing prices, the demand for agarwood is still very high, the documentary found. And this is fueling corruption, undermining global agreements meant to protect the rare trees, and is putting human lives at risk, journalist Ali Mohamed al Woosain said in the documentary.

“In a vicious circle, the rarer it gets, the more desirable it becomes, driving up prices and creating a dangerous black market,” Ali said in the film. “There are even now people getting killed in the hunt for Oud.”

In 2013, for example, five loggers in Vietnam were “brutally” murdered when they were out hunting for the rare agarwood.

In fact, agarwood trees have become so valuable that a 200-year old agarwood tree close close to the Cambodian border is protected by a military checkpoint, the documentary reveals. Some Japanese investors have even offered $23 million for the tree, possibly making it the “single most expensive tree in the world.”

In Scent from Heaven, Ali investigates the corruption, money and the human cost of the agarwood business.

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