Dubai: The UAE's love-affair with oudh could be cut short as soaring global demand mainly from the Arabian Peninsula has led to rapidly diminishing stocks in the wild, rising prices and concerns over future supplies, a new report compiled by environmentalists and the body that monitors agarwood trade, has highlighted.

The UAE's imports of agarwood or oudh increased by nearly 300 per cent in four years making the future of the aromatic wood ‘uncertain', according to the report released last week by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network commissioned by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) Secretariat on the UAE trade and use of agarwood.

Imports of agarwood chips to the UAE alone rose from over 56 tonnes in 2004 to more than 162 tonnes in 2007, an increase of approximately 300 per cent.

Largest exporters

"Whole trees are normally felled to find resin deposits caused by disease or wounding but with just 10 per cent of trees naturally infected this is a very inefficient process. All too often protected areas are being stripped of their agarwood-bearing trees and the opportunity for a well-managed harvest to provide a sustainable income for local communities is lost," said James Compton, Traffic's Senior Programme Director for Asia and a joint author of the UAE report.

Malaysia and Indonesia are the largest exporters of agarwood to the UAE. However the UAE is exempt from limiting its own imports of agarwood after a request for special exemption due to important personal use was approved by Cites.

Yet UAE authorities have taken steps to monitor the trade by asking for permits from exporting countries and registering traders in the UAE.

"The biggest problem is that without a limit set for personal use, passengers are bringing five or ten kilos of agarwood in their luggage," said Dr. Al Saeed Ahmad Mohammad from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, that trains customs officials on spotting suspicious fauna and flora in luggage.

What's oudh?

Known in Arabic as oudh, agarwood is an important part of life in the UAE for Emiratis as well as Arabic culture in general. It is used as a traditional aromatic and perfume in many forms: from high grade wood chips burnt to honour guests, perfuming personal garments before special occasions and in preparation for prayer, through to providing general household fragrance.

It is sold in raw form (wood chips and pieces), as oil (both pure and blended with other fragrances), as perfume products, and in various forms using small shavings of wood mixed with other fragrant ingredients.

Region among top global markets

Agarwood is a resinous wood most frequently burned as incense. It has been labelled the most expensive wood in the world going at over $10,000 (Dh36,700) for high-grade varieties.

It finds medicinal, religious and cultural uses in various societies across Asia but demand far exceeds supply.

Though agarwood does not grow in the Middle East, its consumption in the region is among the highest in the world, nearly equalling north-east Asian countries like Taiwan, Japan and the Republic of Korea.