Villagers engaging in illegal cutting and smuggling of sandalwood have evolved ingenious methods to avoid detection.

THE INGENIOUS tactics villagers employ to cut sandalwood came to light when police and forest officials raided Kerebalachi village in Shimoga district last year. The villagers mark the trees during the day when they go into the forest to collect firewood, but cut it only later, at a more opportune moment. The woods are dressed and hidden in agricultural fields, manure pits or in grain stores. Once a considerable amount of wood has been gathered, an appointed leader sends signal to a city agent. The villagers then take the sandalwood in headloads to convenient transit points where the vehicles of city smugglers pick it up.

Smuggled sandalwood is carried in various guises -- inside hollowed out melons, in headloads, in briefcases, sacks, vegetable baskets, and even tied around the bellies of women pretending to be pregnant. Kerosene or pesticides are smeared on the wood's surface to subdue its tell-tale fragrance. More ingenious ways are being devised as the stricter vigil at checkposts and highways force the trade to modify its modus operandi.

"Heavy vehicles are no longer so popular because once they are confiscated, they are never claimed by the owners. Therefore, old and smaller vehicles, mostly stolen, are preferred," says G S Kumar, divisional forest officer of Shimoga. Vehicles in their hundreds lie rotting in the sandal depots of the two states.

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