Push to target sandalwood criminals

Wildlife officers should be given powers of arrest and the ability to run covert operations to help combat the illegal harvesting of endangered sandalwood, a report says.

An 18-month inquiry into WA's multimillion-dollar sandalwood industry also recommended big fines and jail terms be introduced, with existing penalties considered no deterrent.

The standing committee on environment and public affairs predicted in its final report, released last week, that sandalwood stocks would be "wiped out" without urgent action.

Committee chairman Simon O'Brien said he was amazed at how vulnerable the highly prized native trees had become, despite a raft of existing legislation that was meant to ensure stocks were protected.

"According to the evidence that we received . . . we are going to have a situation where we do not have any wild wood if we keep going at the rate we are going," he said.

"That is why we are urging some very quick action by the Government to review the amount that is allowed to be taken."

The committee highlighted the powers of Fisheries Department investigators as a model the Department of Parks and Wildlife should adopt. Fisheries officers can arrest suspects on-site, install listening devices, seize equipment and even break the law while posing as criminals during sting operations.

They also work closely with police and are given extensive training in law enforcement. Those powers are also backed by penalties of up to $400,000 and 10 years jail. The maximum penalty for illegal sandalwood harvesting is $4000.

Sandalwood is prized internationally for its fragrant oil content that is widely used in perfume production and religious ceremonies.

India was the world's leading producer but illegal harvesting has decimated supplies, leading to a surge in demand for WA wood.

One tonne sells for about $15,000.

About 3000 tonnes is picked legally each year but the committee believes that figure is unsustainable.

Police have predicted that organised crime involvement in the industry would continue to grow because of the huge profits and relatively small penalties.

'We will not have any wild wood if we keep going at the rate we are.'"Committee chairman *Simon O'Brien *

The West Australian

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