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Sam Channel1 and Lex Thomson2


In Vanuatu, and indeed most South Pacific countries, many tree species are threatened with extinction either at the species or at the population level. With rather limited resources the Vanuatu Department of Forests is endeavouring to conserve the genetic diversity in useful native tree species. Such diversity is needed to help trees adapt to changing environmental conditions and for selection and improvement, both by farmers and industry. It is now recognised that the maintenance of genetic resources, especially forests and trees, is of decisive importance for sustainable development in the South Pacific Region.

As a first step in conserving forest genetic resources, the Forest Conservation Unit of the Department of Forests has developed draft conservation strategies for four top priority Vanuatu tree species, sandalwood (Santalum austrocaledonicum), whitewood (Endospermum medullosum), Pacific kauri (Agathis macrophylla) and Santo kauri (Agathis silbae). Development of these strategies has involved input from the entire Department, and been assisted by the AusAID-funded SPRIG (South Pacific Regional Initiative on Forest Genetic Resources) with major input from Dr Helen Corrigan. An essential step in this process has been consultation with key stakeholders, including village communities, industry and NGOs.

The conservation strategies are comprehensive and detail all relevant known information on the species, including biology, distribution, utilization, threats and recommended conservation measures. Each strategy aims to conserve, better manage and utilise the genetic resources of the respective species. This short summary focuses on the draft strategy for sandalwood giving as an example the types of recommendations made in the conservation strategy for this species.


Figure 1. Santalum austrocaledonicum

The species

Santalum austrocaledonicum is a shrub or a small tree 5-12 m in height with a short bole. It usually has a crooked stem, is low forking; and has pendulous young branches.

Historically, two sandalwood species have provided a major source of income for the people of the South Pacific. These are Santalum austrocaledonicum in New Caledonia and Vanuatu and S. yasi in Fiji and Tonga.

S. austrocaledonicum is found in the island archipelagos of New Caledonia and Vanuatu. In New Caledonia S. austrocaledonicum is widespread on the Isle of Pines and the Loyalty Islands around Noumea and north of the main island. On the main island, Grande Terre, it is found in a few restricted areas, including Noumea, Paita, Nepoui, Thiebaghi, Poum, Belep, Plaine des Lacs, Queen Island.

Sandalwood has an extensive and discontinued natural distribution in Vanuatu. The principal occurrences of the species in the archipelagos are around the north-west, west and south-west portions of Erromango and on the west coast of Espiritu Santo (see map 1); it is also found on Tanna, Aniwa, Futuna, Malekula, Efate and Aneityum. The species has been widely depleted especially on Efate and Aneityum as a result of over-exploitation.

The sandalwood species found in Vanuatu, Santalum austrocaledonicum, produces a highly scented heartwood, much prized for carving and for its valuable aromatic oil. The oil is highly regarded because of its uniform composition and its sweet, warm/spicy and long lasting fragrance. It is used in soaps and perfumes, and it also has medicinal uses. It was the high prices available in the eastern ports at the beginning of the 19th century that sent swarms of adventurers in search of the wood and started the "Sandalwood Trade". Today the demand for sandalwood for export is still high and it continues to be a valuable commodity. In 1998 the royalty paid to villagers totalled 31.6 million Vatu (approximately $US 250,000), a major source of rural income in the areas where it is still found.

The major threat to sandalwood in Vanuatu comes from unsustainable and uncontrolled harvesting. Other threats include damage to regeneration by feral cattle and clearing for agricultural development. Table 1 shows the status and the threats facing the individual populations found in Vanuatu. As can be seen, the species is threatened at population level in much of its natural range.

The issue of management and control of the sandalwood trade and export in Vanuatu is addressed in the national Forestry Act, Order No 3 (The Sandalwood Order). This outlines licence requirements, conditions, fees etc. related to the trade of sandalwood and it gives the Minister the power to declare a sandalwood trading season upon advice from the Director of Forests, by specifying the period sandalwood can be traded and cut. From 1987 to 1991 a moratorium on the harvest of sandalwood was declared by the Minister.

Table 1: Threats to genetic resources of sandalwood in Vanuatu

Major island group or island
Threatened at population levelPopulations and status
West Coast SantoYesWunpuku to Tasmate and round the cape Nahoi (Cumberland) point to Hokua possibly as far as Presena. Restricted to the drier parts of the peninsula. Remaining trees are mostly in inaccessible locations long distances from the villages.
MalakulaYesDixon's Reef - Found only in the Dixon's Reef area of west coast Malakula. Reported by to be harvested almost to extinction.
EfateYesWest coast - in Siviri, behind Port Havannah and Magaliliu in the north west. The remnant population is immature an harvesting is presently banned.
ErromangoYesNorth-west and South-west - Scattered populations in abundance in the north, although these populations suffer from damage by feral cattle. Populations in the more southerly parts of sandalwood's range on Erromango do not suffer from cattle damage and are regenerating well. There is also a significant amount of sandalwood planting in the southern part of the island.
AniwaYesAniwa - Reported abundance of the tree in scattered populations. Although the quality of the Aniwa sandalwood harvested has not been good, a ban has been placed on harvesting sandalwood from the island for 1999.
TannaYesTanna - Reported abundance of the tree in scattered populations.
FutunaYesFutuna - Reported from Futuna. Possibly rare in scattered populations. There has not been any known harvest from Futuna.
AneityumYesAneityum - The species has been largely depleted on Aneityum as a result of over-exploitation during the last century. Reportedly rare in scattered populations.


There is a demonstrable need to both conserve and better utilise the genetic resources of sandalwood in Vanuatu. Accordingly, eight recommendations have been listed in the conservation strategy for sandalwood in Vanuatu. Recommendations 1,2 and 5 are priority action for early implementation by the Department of Forests using existing personnel and financial resources. The other recommendations will require additional resources.

Recommendation 1:

Expand Departmental programmes for replanting of sandalwood, including appointment of a Sandalwood Extension Officer. The programmes should include public education and awareness as well as production and distribution of relevant technical information and of high quality seedlings. Replanting activities will be concentrated in areas where sandalwood occurs naturally, and only local germplasm should be used.

Recommendation 2:

Continue to promote and enforce the Department's Sandalwood Order and annual restrictions on size-cutting limits and cutting bans for selected islands.

Recommendation 3:

Engage and support local participation in the establishment of gene conservation and seed stands of sandalwood.

Recommendation 4:

Undertake research on sandalwood necessary for the development of a scientifically sound conservation and management strategy including:

Recommendation 5:

Work with New Caledonia to conserve the genetic resources of Santalum austrocaledonicum. Collaborative work should include:

A key component of conserving the genetic resources of species of major economic importance, such as S. austrocaledonicum, is to ensure that the species is adequately conserved throughout its entire native range. The natural range of S. austrocaledonicum extends to New Caledonia, where three varieties have been described. Furthermore, useful provenances for this species are known to exist in New Caledonia and it is desirable that these are also conserved. There exist good opportunities to collaborate with New Caledonia in the conservation of the genetic resources of sandalwood, and to exchange information and germplasm to the mutual benefit of both countries/territories.

Recommendation 6:

Undertake an inventory of sandalwood throughout Vanuatu, including planted trees.

This inventory is needed to assist in setting appropriate harvesting limits for each island on which sandalwood occurs and to place sandalwood utilization on a planned, sustainable basis in Vanuatu. The approach would involve landholders stratifying their land into areas of high, medium and low sandalwood occurrence. A further category might be inaccessible and remote areas from which sandalwood is unlikely to be extracted. Field assessment using a rapidly conducted narrow strip sample on representative areas could then be used to quantify the resource.

Recommendation 7:

The Department of Forests should work with the communities and custom landowners to establish Sandalwood Managed Conservation Areas for each major sandalwood population/island. The first such target areas would be Ponivé and Tamsal on Erromango and Dixon's Reef, Malakula.

Recommendation 8:

Work with landholders to encourage the conservation of smaller sandalwood populations/stands on each island that are potentially good seed sources.


The development of a conservation strategy for sandalwood for Vanuatu is part of a series of initiatives on the species being initiated or carried out at national/territorial or regional level in the South Pacific. In New Caledonia and French Polynesia proposals for projects dealing with sandalwood are presently being prepared.

Various initiatives have been discussed by Heads of Forest Services or their representatives during the Pacific Sub-Regional Workshop on Forest and Tree Genetic Resources, held in Apia, Samoa, from 12 to 16 April 1999.3 Santalum has appeared to be among the priority genera in Melanesia, Polynesia and Hawaii and several opportunities for coordinated activities have been highlighted.


Naupa, S.; Corrigan, H.; Likiafu, R.; Sam, C.; Thomson, L. 1999. A Strategy for conserving, managing and better utilizing the genetic resources of Santalum austrocaledonicum in Vanuatu. DRAFT Department of Forests, Vanuatu.

  1. Forest Conservation Unit, Department of Forests, Vanuatu
  2. Team Leader, SPRIG Project , CSIRO Forestry and Forest Products, Australia
  3. For further information on the workshop, please refer to the article "Pacific Sub-Regional Workshop on Forest and Tree Genetic Resources" on page 11.

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