Capturing the smugglers of Walla Patta (Gyrinops Walla), a plant native to Sri Lanka has become a frequent event in the recent past, but this hasn’t deterred many offenders despite the huge publicity by the media. Experts say that this may be largely due to the price of Walla Patta kilogram splashed across media as [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Walla Patta – Separating the facts from fiction


Capturing the smugglers of Walla Patta (Gyrinops Walla), a plant native to Sri Lanka has become a frequent event in the recent past, but this hasn’t deterred many offenders despite the huge publicity by the media.

Experts say that this may be largely due to the price of Walla Patta kilogram splashed across media as lucrative – at times it was quoted as Rs. 80,000 (about US$ 650). Dr. Upul Subasinghe, a Senior Lecturer of the Department of Forestry and Environmental Science of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura of Sri Lanka, who started researching on this species with his colleagues from late 2010, says that this figure can be true for the wall stems with full of resins. “For my two and half years’ research on all aspects of this species, I can guarantee that there is no Walla Patta tree full of resins in Sri Lanka. Due to the nature of resin formation, it has to be impossible to collect the ‘right trees’ in a large scale,” he reiterates.

File picture of Walla Patta logs seized by the Police

Agarwood resin

Traditionally the bark of this species was used as a binding material and apart from that, the Walla Patta tree had no known value. He said that in early 2011, they found that Walla Patta produces the valuable Agarwood resin of the Agarwood tree which is reputed to be the most expensive wood in the world. “Once a tree is damaged as an example if a branch is removed, then the wound is infected by an airborne fungus, etc. Then this tree realizes there’s a threat and produces a pathogen to fight it. This is the resin,” Dr. Subasinghe explained.

However, he emphasised that every Walla Patta tree which grows naturally does not produce Agarwood resins. “Therefore just by knowing a per kilo value of Agarwood as $200 or above, doesn’t mean the entire Walla Patta tree stem costs that much. In reality the Agarwood resin production is about 1 per cent of the stem or even below due to natural causes. Therefore the extractable Agarwood amount from a Walla Patta tree which contains Agarwood is very low. What is valuable is the resin or the stem tissues with resin compounds and not just the Walla trees,” he says, adding that Walla trees do not naturally produce the resins in the stem.

There are methods of enhancing the Agarwood resin formation in Walla trees.

Through the Ministry of Economic Development, the Sri Lanka government is stepping forward to promote growing this species in home gardens and as plantations under scientific guidelines for commercial use. “Therefore I would like to make an appeal to the public to preserve the trees growing in the wild and home gardens and not to be misled,” Dr. Subasinghe says.

He says that the statistics are alarming.

In May 2012, 14,000 kg of smuggled Walla Patta was captured by the Police and the Special Task Force. “The price of this was given as $1.6 million.

According to the images showed in the electronic media, those tree samples appeared to be white, which means, there was no or very little Agarwood formed in the trees, Dr. Subasinghe says, adding that some 95 per cent of wild-grown Walla Patta trees do not produce Agarwood resins. Even if the resin is formed, it is due to natural reasons (as cited above) and therefore it does not evenly spread in the stem.

Although Agarwood has been known to the world before about 2,000 years, commercial extraction in high scale started recently. In parallel to that scientific research has also been started in many countries to identify the plant distribution in the world, Agarwood resin extraction methods and induction methods.

The person or persons who valued the smuggled Sri Lankan Walla Patta trees at $1,143 per kg has made another crime by lying to the public and showing the lack of knowledge in the trade, Dr. Subasinghe says, adding that this type of irresponsible behaviour leads to destroy the valuable Walla Patta resource in Sri Lanka.

The Agarwood resins can to be artificially formed in the correct size of trees and in the next six to 12 months of time, Dr. Subasinghe says. He says that his team will be able to come up with the best methods of forming resins in Walla Patta under the $93,000 research grant awarded to them under the Public-Private-Partnership Programme of the National Research Council(NRC) of Sri Lanka, for conducting further research on Walla Patta. Sadaharitha Plantation Ltd jointly funds this 3- year research programme with the NRC.

Research will help clear doubts

Walla Patta is recorded in the wet zone of Sri Lanka, and it had been very rarely recorded in extreme southwest India. “Studies were not conducted in the past for Walla Patta on its ability of Agarwood resin production and the quality of that resin,” Dr Subasinghe says, adding that this study is the first to identify the Agarwood resin formation and the quality of Walla Patta which can be used as a substitute for that of Aquilaria and other species of Gyrinops. “We started the germination trials. We’re also testing the resin quality and quantity,” he says, adding that within the next three months artificial induction will be done.

Resinous tissues were extracted from six Walla Patta trees for the present study from two different areas, i.e., Labugama and Yagirala of the wet zone of Sri Lanka. The resins were solvent extracted in the laboratory and the resin quality was tested using gas chromatography analysis.

By conducting this research project, the seed germination methods, most effective Agarwood resin induction methods, Agarwood quantity and quality variations with tree size, age and climatic conditions as well as optimum resin extraction methods are expected to be obtained.

According to Dr Subasinghe these results will benefit the villagers living in the low country wet zone of Sri Lanka by providing the correct information on planting methods, resin formation and harvesting times of this precious tree currently exploited without having a proper knowledge on its value.

“Walla Patta smuggling has been practiced in Sri Lanka for a long time. It has to be emphasized that the final value and the quality are decided by the buyers since the product is used for fragrance and perfume manufacturing.”

Expensive resin product

Agarwood is an expensive resinous product extracted from some members of Aquilaria and Gyrinops species of the family Thymalaeaceae. Agarwood essential oil is a highly valued perfumery product in modern cosmetics and traditional essence. Agarwood extraction from the above species and product manufacturing are done in India and Southeast Asian countries. But over harvesting, low natural regeneration and legal restrictions at present, have limited the supply of this product.

“The best quality Agarwood is now produced in the countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, etc,” Dr. Upul Subasinghe from the University of Sri Jayawardenapura says. The traditional market existed for the products in Middle East, China, Thailand, etc and now it is becoming very popular in the US and Europe.

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