Tourist vehicles ferrying passengers from the hill stations of Idukki are being used as cover for sandalwood smuggling. A few incidents of sandalwood smugglers using tourist vehicles have come to the notice of forest officials tracking the smuggling of the scented wood. The trend is to use such vehicles during the early hours of the day and evening hours of holidays like Sundays when there would be huge rush of vehicles from the tourist stations.

The smugglers were found trying to exploit the situation where checking of vehicles would lead to huge traffic block during the peak travel hours, said K.S. Justin Stanley, Divisional Forest Officer, Marayur Sandalwood Division of the Forest Department. The forest department had detected two such cases in the recent past when the tourist permit vehicles were used in the smuggling of the priced wood, he said.

In an another development, the forest officials seized 70 kg of sandalwood and 60 kg of Indian White Cedar (Vella Akil in local parlance) from a private car at Neriyamangalam near Munnar the other day. The vehicle was chased for around 12 km, as it sped away when the forest officials tried to pull it over. After the hot pursuit, the vehicle was intercepted and the contraband was taken into custody. The wooden pieces were found stored in gunny bags in the boot of the vehicle. The driver of the vehicle could not be nabbed. A case was registered following the seizure, officials said.

The wood of Indian White Cedar, a tree species endemic to the evergreen forests of Western Ghats, has a faint smell and colour of sandalwood and hence used to mix with sandal paste. The wood, with medicinal properties, is used to make cooperage for Ayurvedic preparations considering its medicinal value, said P. Sujanapal, a taxonomist of the Kerala Forest Research Institute, Peechi, Thrissur.

Declining trend

Sandalwood smuggling is showing a downward trend if the number of cases booked over the years is any indication. The number of cases had plummeted to 33 in 2011 from the 61 of 2010. Last year, 30 offences were registered. This year, two cases have been registered so far, the officials said.

The vehicles are searched for sandalwood at the forest check posts of Chinnar and Chattamunnar considering the proximity of the areas to the sandal reserves. The service of a sniffer dog, Kichu, which has also been trained in tracking, is also used for anti-smuggling operations. The dog, which is stationed at Nachivayal Forest station at near Marayur, had recently helped the investigators in nabbing an accused and recovering sandalwood pieces hidden by the culprits. The department had also requested for one more sniffer dog to aid the anti-smuggling operations in the region, an official said.

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